For many baby boomers, the loss of Andy Griffith earlier this week was like a death in the family. The actor was so convincing as easy-going, fair-minded Mayberry sheriff Andy Taylor in the 1960s series "The Andy Griffith Show" that there was great sadness at his passing.
You thought of Andy and Opie, Barney, Goober and Gomer and of that easy to whistle theme song. You mourned what seemed like a golden time gone by.
To a lesser extent, the deaths of Don Grady, for 13 seasons one of Fred MacMurray's "My Three Sons," and Frank Cady, Mr. Drucker on "Green Acres," touched many viewers who grew up in the '60s. School girls had crushes on Grady, who played straight arrow student Robbie Douglas, just as they had on recently deceased Davy Jones of "The Monkees." Cady's bald shopkeeper had the rare if not unique distinction of appearing as the same character in the same season on three different CBS sitcoms: "Acres," "Petticoat Junction" and "The Beverly Hillbillies."
Their deaths put in perspective the tremendous dominance of network television during their era. Before there was Netflix or Hulu or Xbox or Facebook, iPhones or tablets or any of a dozen other electronic distractions, there was television, which was in virtually every home in North America by the early 1960s.
And before there was Fox or HBO or ESPN, or TSN, History and Discovery, there was just ABC, CBS and NBC, plus CBC and CTV. If you lived in the kind of rural area depicted on many of these shows, in that pre-cable, pre-satellite world, you barely picked up even the major networks on your antenna.
So when "The Andy Griffith Show" came on after "The Danny Thomas Show" on Monday nights on CBS, more people tuned in each week than the numbers for an "American Idol" finale today. This despite the fact that there are almost twice as many people in Canada and the U.S. now as there was 50 years ago.
According to a 2002 survey appearing in TV Guide magazine, when you factor in reruns over the years, "The Andy Griffith Show" ranks among the Top 10 most-watched U.S. TV shows of all time. "Seinfeld" tops that list, ahead of "I Love Lucy." Jerry Seinfeld recently tweeted that the "Hey Newman" or "Hey Jerry" greeting his characters gave each other was a nod to Griffith's series.
"Seinfeld" tapped into what was a universally shared experience, especially for younger viewers in the '60s. Not only did you see the shows every week — 30 or more episodes a year instead of today's 22 — you had the lunchbox. You ate Corn Flakes because that's what Jethro ate on "The Beverly Hillbillies."
Those shared TV experiences seemed to intensify during times of crisis. Immediately following the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, ratings for "The Beverly Hillbillies" spiked, putting them in the 40 million viewer range, among the most-watched non-finale episodes ever.
"The Andy Griffith Show" (1960-68), which never dropped below No. 7 for a season, was the No. 1 series in America in 1967-68. As the real world churned during the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, viewers sought refuge in Mayberry, where rural values and a simpler America could still be found and embraced.
These shows were comfort stations. In a less cynical time, they made people laugh and were populated by friendly, familiar faces. Griffith was the authority figure you liked and respected at a time when authority figures were being challenged in the streets. He was the dad you could trust and rely on in any situation. If he had a weakness, it was for Aunt Bee's apple pie.
If you were Opie's age when you first met him, he stayed with you all your life. So when he died this week, it was like a death in the family.
Hard to imagine where viewers would flock today in a crisis. Dark, flawed anti-heroes like Dexter, Walter White (from "Breaking Bad"), Hank Moody ("Californication") or even retro dad Don Draper ("Mad Men") hardly seem the embraceable type. Every now and then a show like "Corner Gas" will come around to remind viewers of Mayberry, but one can't help but think that if sheriff Taylor was working today, his police station would be a forensic crime lab.
Fifty years from now, viewers may stop to remember the passing of one of the stars from "New Girl" or a favourite student from "Glee." Should an "Idol" winner pass away 50 years from now, the name may ring a bell.
It just won't represent as much, or to as many.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.