The Ed Sullivan Phenomenon – Can Anything Replace it?

Let’s travel back in time once again for another blog on a long ago memory. I know my regular readers love this nostalgia, and I hope my younger readers find the differences in our culture and everyday living a little bit fascinating as I often do.

Today’s topic is television. There were three channels to watch, (ABC, NBC, and CBS) plus PBS before Sesame Street when programming was high-brow and not of interest to a kid growing up. Later as I was a teen, UHF stations came into play – on the stations that Fox, and the WB play on now. Those stations mostly played reruns of favorite shows and some sporting events.

Again, there was not much choice or selection in the days before Cable TV. No DVR’s either. Don’t get me started on having a black and white TV while everyone else was getting color TV, and how many of us had to use pliers to turn the channels when the knob that turned the channels broke from use? (Most of us did not have remote TV sets through the 60’s)

There was usually one big console TV set in the main room – the living room. Later on there may have been a second TV in the parent’s bedroom.

Viewing shows as a family was a necessity, and some evenings, it was non-negotiable over what was going to be played on the one TV set. On Sunday nights, it was Ed Sullivan for just about every family I knew including my own. It was an entertainment, variety show that features comedians, rock groups, snippets from Broadway shows, puppet shows, acrobats and other circus acts, and singers from my parent’s generation. It was such a phenomenon in our pop culture, there was even a song about him in the Broadway show and movie, “Bye, Bye Birdie.”

Kids gladly suffered through the opera singers and ballet performer acts to see the rock group(s) that would appear each week through the sixties and early seventies .

By the way, no one actually watched to see Ed Sullivan – he was kind of a stiff.  He appeared to have severe stage fright that he never quite conquered as he robotically read the cue cards for each guest. The only time he relaxed was when a comedian or singer that he obviously knew personally came up to greet him after their act and he would laugh at whatever they would say to him, his posture and body slackening just a bit. Other than that, he was a bit of a robot. Yet he was a keen scout on talent and new trends, and wanted to be the first American television show the Beatles would appear on when they first got attention on US radio play. Old Ed not only scored the Beatles, but he fully embraces the British Invasion rock groups – even the weird ones, as well as all the US ones. 

But you have to respect an older guy who was hip enough to invite the hottest rock groups of our era on his “family program” complete with their hippie looks and clothes. He always called them over and thanked them for appearing, shaking their hands warmly. (This was the only warm thing about him.) This kind of cracks me up now when I watch on You Tube or on an occasional PBS special about Ed Sullivan, because the generational differences – Ed in his suit and tie and slicked back short hair – greeting all those granny glasses, long-haired types with funky clothing.

It would be as if someone like Judge Judy (Who tries hard to keep a straight face but not her utter contempt for some of the weirdos on her show)  got off her bench and warmly approached the tattooed, pierced, droopy-drawered younger generation that she has on her show. Not a chance.

I watched each week mesmerized by the rock groups that would appear while cameras scanned the audience filled with shrieking teens. I always laughed at my father’s commentary for most of them, shouting out comments to the TV such as, “no talent, long-haired weirdos,” or “that’s noise, not music,” even though I could not disagree more. (He eventually came around to be a very big Beatles fan and learned to enjoy popular music that included many other groups too) He was mostly teasing me anyway – that was the kind of guy he was.

For the even younger viewers he had Topo Gigio, a little puppet mouse and he had magicians. There was really something for the whole family – and that is my point.

At any rate, Ed Sullivan was a family TV phenomenon mainstay in most American homes through the late 50’s, all through the 60’s and some of the 70’s in a way that nothing since has been able to replace.

Can this show and phenomenon ever be replaced? Do families even sit around the same television set any more to watch a show together? I mean the kind where everyone actually wants to see the show. Perhaps it was that way briefly for American Idol. I have a feeling that family television viewing, other than SPORTS games of course, has gone the way of the Dinosaur. Let me know if I am wrong, those of you with growing families.


  • Since the pandemic i feel we have come back to that time when we sat around as a family and watched shows or movies now.. pinged watching is big now .

  • Great article ! He was iconic ! He knew how to make a great variety show. “Really Big Show “
    Yes it was great the family gathered around the tv and watched the British Invasion unfold
    Yeah yeah yeah !!

  • As I recall, Ed Sullivan was the first to have Elvis Presley on TV. There was a big controversy as to whether or not the camera would show his gyrating hips! At first, TV programming was not only limited to 3 channels, but didn’t come on until the afternoon – otherwise there was a test pattern which we actually sat and watched! The first TV’s were big, boxy and heavy, had a very small screen and was filled with tubes which required constant visits by the repairman (yes, a man). In addition to Ed Sullivan, there was Uncle Milty (Milton Berle Show), Tues at 8pm; Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca: Sat at 8 ?, Howdy Doody, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, every afternoon – and wrestling: Haystack Calhoun. The Jackie Gleason Show, too – with Ed Norton. Shows were not taped – all live! The truth was we would watch almost anything because of the magic of it. But, looking back, I think these electronic innovations like TV and AC in the home, served to separate, and isolate people. Up till the advent of these devices, people entertained one another – and I remember that too and miss it.

  • I thought it was a great shew!!!! In fact, one time our homework assignment was to watch Ed Sullivan because he was having the Bolshoi Ballet on the show.

  • I am there, Arlene, except that my father fixed and built black and white TVs, so sometimes, while my mom and I were watching something, and the picture went sideways, my father would mess about in the mysterious back of the box with his pliers and tubes, and the picture would arc and change shape, sound would distort and slow, until he had it fixed.
    I remember sitting on the floor as a 6 or 7 year old with my troll dolls and Barbies spread out on the rug while my father watched the news, and occasionally glanced up to see the latest on the Russians and the space program.
    I remember UHF showed up when I got to Jr. High, and they had badly drawn but somehow thrilling cartoon shows about superheros, like Tovar, the 8th Man. Maybe that’s what it was called. I still remember the theme song, or a bit of it.
    PBS wasn’t just Sesame Street and the Electric Company, but later, Monty Python and Mystery, and Masterpiece Theater and their own brand of news, which I still watch.

  • At the time of Ed Sullivan’s popularity, there were many variety shows on television. The closest thing to Ed’s show, currently, are the late-night talk shows. But, the dissemination of entertainment has so many other outlets now, the television broadcasts we once knew could meet the same fate as the radio shows of the 30s and 40s.

    • Yes, but Ed Sullivan was the really really big shew! And I do not know any families that stay up late to watch Jimmy Fallon together etc. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for reading.

  • there are only a handful of shows we watch as a family..Shark Tank, Survivor, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, and Modern Family. But hey, that’s something!

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