The 1970s was a decade that produced some of America’s best films, music, and TV shows. The 1970s TV shows were especially reflective of the time.
Contrasting the shows of the 50s and 60s, the 1970s TV shows present mature characters, challenging storylines, and witty humor. 1970s TV shows also informed American audiences of what was going on in the country and in the world.
But which were the 1970s TV shows that made the biggest impact? According to ClassicTVHits.com the most-watched 1970s TV series are Marcus Welby MD, All in the Family, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and 60 Minutes.
What was it about these 5 TV shows that made them popular? How did they reflect life in the 1970s?
Let’s learn about the most watched TV series of the 1970s …
1970-1971: MARCUS WELBY MD
Marcus Welby MD followed Dr. Marcus Welby and his assistant Steven Kiley. They care for their patients in an age of cynicism and in a profession that requires coldness. Dr. Welby was on a first-name basis with his patients and showed them compassion.
The medical drama series starred Robert Young as Dr. Marcus Welby and James Brolin as Steven. Elena Verdugo played their nurse Consuelo Lopez.
While the show isn’t different from medical dramas, the elder doctor – Marcus Welby is a compassionate and friendly doctor. While the young one, Steven, is a more cold and serious approach to his profession.
The show stands out, it isn’t afraid to depict illnesses that previous generations of TV creators’ are afraid to show. This included episodes where Dr. Marcus Welby helped treat mononucleosis, teenage obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, learning disabilities, painkiller addiction, and even treating rape victims.
While we use to see graphic medical discussions on TV and in cinema today, this is rare before the 1970s.
There were a few episodes that caused a huge controversy with audiences. There is an episode that dealt with abortion that didn’t air in Mexico – due to abortion itself at the time. “The Other Martin Loring” attracts controversy, shows a middle-aged homosexual patient who resists his sexual urges by Dr. Welby.
There is also an episode, “The Outrage” in which a homosexual teacher molests a teenage boy. Which did in fact cause major outrage among audiences and activist groups.
This episode isn’t on several networks and the first time that a TV episode didn’t air due to protests. There were also several sponsors who refused to show their ads during breaks for this episode. No doubt such an episode would be even more controversial today.
The show cancels in 1976 after running for 169 episodes! While there are episodes that upset viewers, it remains one of the most-watched 1970s TV series of all time. The beginning of the 1970s clearly belonged to Dr. Marcus Welby!
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1971-1976: ALL IN THE FAMILY
No surprise to people in the 1970s that All in The Family’s one of the most-watched shows of the decade. But the show is so popular that it was the most-watched TV show from 1971 to 1976!
All in the Family wasn’t an ordinary sitcom. It is a sharp contrast with most sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s to an idyllic version of American life. Rather, All in the Family isn’t afraid to have a character who’s unsympathetic and is politically incorrect! The show didn’t hesitate to discuss some of the dark subject matter that characterizes American life in general.
The show followed the irascible Archie Bunker and his family. Played by Carroll O’Connor, Archie Bunker was a working-class American who loved the traditional values of America and wasn’t afraid to express his opinion on the changing liberal attitudes that were becoming more popular during the decade.
The show often discussed dark topics using humor. These included topics such as rape, homosexuality and gay rights, women’s liberation and feminism, abortion, religion, the Vietnam War, and race-relations.
While it must have been a huge risk to create such a show, All in the Family is a testament to great art.
The show’s popularity showed that American audiences were mature enough to enjoy a sitcom that wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects – all while peppering the dialogue with politically-incorrect language!
Many audiences today will look back at All in the Family and wish that sitcoms today could be as brave. The show remained the most-watched 1970s TV series for six years’ straight. It’s no wonder that President Nixon discussed the show on the now-infamous Watergate Tapes and that Archie and Edith’s chairs can be found in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History!
1976-1977: HAPPY DAYS
Of course, the 1970s wasn’t just about discussing dark themes. It was also a time of nostalgia toward the 1950s – which has often been depicted as a nicer, more innocent, and idyllic time in America.
The most watched TV show from 1976 to 1977 was Happy Days – which harkened back to the Midwestern USA in the 1950s and 1960s. The show starred Ron Howard, who grown up and moving on from his ‘Opie’ character from The Andy Griffith Show. The show also helped launch the career of Henry Winkler who played Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli – probably better known as “The Fonz” or “Fonzie.”
While it initially didn’t catch-on with audiences, the show’s creator Garry Marshall made Fonzie a more prominent character in the third season. Audiences fell in love with the rebellious and laid-back character played brilliantly by Henry Winkler.
The show became so popular that one of Fonzie’s leather jackets is displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. It should also be noted that the now-famous character of ‘Mork’ played by Robin Williams debuted on Happy Days.
It’s ironic that one of the most watched 1970s TV shows was set in the previous two decades. But as the 1970s brought many scandals and uncertainties in America, it was perhaps the show that American audiences needed the most.
1977-1979: LAVERNE & SHIRLEY
One of the most popular spin-offs from Happy Days followed two friends who worked as bottle-cappers at the Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee. Like Happy Days, the show took place during the 1950s and 1960s.
From 1977 to 1979, American television belonged to Laverne & Shirley. It became the most watched TV series in America beginning in the third season. It ran for a total of 8 seasons and garnered 6 Golden Globe nominations and 1 Emmy nomination.
Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams played Laverne and Shirley, respectively, on Happy Days. When the spin-off was announced, Cindy Williams was initially not interested in reprising her role.
Another actress, Liberty Williams auditioned for the role of Shirley. However, TV executive Michael Eisner hid Liberty’s demo reel from the other executives. As such, they insisted that Cindy Williams reprise her role.
She did, and Laverne & Shirley became popular for being one of the major sitcoms that was female-led. This complemented another popular sitcom of the 1970s, Maude, which also had a female protagonist.
American women weren’t always at the forefront of stories set in the 1950s or even the 1960s. Laverne & Shirley followed in the footsteps of popular actresses such as Lucille Ball and Donna Reed. It’s considered a classic today and is often thought of as one of America’s most underrated sitcoms.
At least from 1977 to 1979, it got its due as America’s most watched sitcom!
1979: 60 MINUTES WRAPPED UP THE DECADE
The popularity of Laverne & Shirley was a great way to end the 1970s. It gave American audiences a chance to look back with nostalgia on a more innocent time in the country.
But, the final year of the 1970s showed that Americans didn’t want to always use their television sets to escape reality. In fact, the television set was the preferred medium for Americans to get informed about what was happening in the country and in the world.
60 Minutes became the most watched TV series in 1979.
The show premiered in 1968 but it really became a crucial part of American television at the end of the 1970s.
60 Minutes covered the most popular news stories of the time and had groundbreaking interviews with famous personalities. While not as popular as it was in the 1970s and early 1980s, 60 Minutes remains one of the most popular American tv news programs.
One of the most fun – and most watched – episodes of 60 Minutes from 1979 is a report that looked at The Muppets Show – behind the scenes! There was also a fascinating report of video piracy – still in its infancy in those days.
60 Minutes is an institution in itself and the end of the 1970s showed that Americans were eager to be informed about what was going on. Perhaps it was also an indicator that the news in itself, would become as popular, addicting, and influential as any other TV drama or comedy series…
As a side note, one of the most fascinating episodes of the show occurred in 1976 which discussed Swine Flu vaccines amid a push for mandating such vaccines. Looking back, one wonders if such an episode contributed to the popularity of 60 Minutes and what audiences today would make of the episode!
Do you miss the 1970s? Or at least, do you miss the great TV shows?
Now we’d like to hear from you:
Do you think these shows deserved their popularity as the most watched 1970s TV shows? Or are there better shows that should have made the list?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.