From a 22-year-old Elvis Presley to men walking on the Moon to the horrors of September 11, 2001, here are some of the most shocking moments in live television history.
September 9, 1956
A record audience of 60 million tuned in to the #1 show on television—The Ed Sullivan Show—that night to watch a 22-year-old Elvis Presley break the all-time viewership rating in TV history. His gyrating and swiveling hips reached an unheard of 82.5% rating. The controversy was so massive across America that Sullivan was forced to photograph Presley from the waste up on his last appearance on the program in 1957.
November 24, 1963
The country was in deep shock after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in his motorcade at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. Live new cameras were sending feeds nationally as police were transferring the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald from the police station to the county jail. A local nightclub owner, Jack Ruby came out of the crowd as millions watched his live on-air murder of shooting the handcuffed and escorted Oswald in the gut.
July 20, 1969
Over 600 million earthlings watched the impossible happened with live footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Alden walking on the Moon. Astronaut Armstrong sealed his fate in history when he voiced the famous phrase “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
July 15, 1974
WXLT-TV Florida morning news Christine Chubbuck calmly told her television audience, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.” Then she pulled out a gun and shot herself behind the right ear. On the floor bleeding, the telecast broke to a commercial as she died.
January 28, 1986
The launch of the space shuttle Challenger included school teacher Christa McAuliffee, making it one of the most high-profile missions in NASA’s history. What was intended to be the dawn of space expeditions for the average person became a national horror just seventy-three seconds into the flight. Millions watched as the shuttle broke apart and exploded into plumes of smoke and fire.
April 29 – May 4, 1992
After the acquittal of the four police officers charged in the assault on Rodney King, south central Los Angeles exploded into violent riots as thousands took to the streets. The horrible beating of motorist Reginald Denny was caught by live TV cameras. When the riots subsided, 53 people were killed and thousands more were injured.
April 15, 1993
Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms to execute a search warrant over illegal weapons stored inside the Branch Dividian compound outside of Waco, Texas. The scene turned ugly as the raid went bad on live television. On the final day (after several weeks) shots were fired, tanks entered and the compound went up in flames. At least 76 Branch Dividian members were killed.
June 17, 1994
Noisy Las Vegas casinos experienced waves of silence as big screen TV’s ran live coverage of former NFL running back O.J. Simpson driving his white Bronco through Orange County highways and streets. The world watched as Simpson, who was accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, refused to turn himself in. It became the memorable low-speed car chase in history and eventually led to the trial of the century.
October 3, 1995
O.J. Simpson’s trial verdict became the most watched and shocking live courtroom moment in American TV history. Estimates claimed over 90-percent of television viewers watched as the verdict was announced “not guilty.” The trial divided the country almost by racial lines, and public outcry was at a maximum.
September 11, 2001
September 11, 2001 became the most shocking and tragic day in American history. Unfolding live, reports initiated with a plane striking the World Trade Center and escalated with the horror of a second plane smashing into the South Tower. Immediately it became an obvious highly-coordinated terrorist attack. The aftermath kept us horror for weeks.
March 19, 2003
Live TV and the Internet provided the world real-time coverage of a war for the first time as the U.S. entered the Iraq War. Operation Shock and Awe was shown live on every major news network on earth with bombs accurately hitting their hundreds of targets at rapid rates.
September 21, 2005
The emergency landing of JetBlue Airways Flight 292 was an anxious state for millions watching the descent on live TV. Included in the viewership were the actual passengers who watched events unfold via their on-board televisions. The sets were turned off just prior to the landing.
March 11, 2011
The Japan tsunami of March 2011 is still one of the most terrifying events ever seen on television. Live TV caught the tsunami waves from the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and took around 18,000 lives.