News reports ranked this year’s Super Bowl as the most watched U.S. TV broadcast of all time. This is not unexpected, as Super Bowl broadcasts dominate the list of most watched prime time network broadcasts in the U.S.
Other entries on the list are interesting but not surprising. There are series finales and cliffhangers (M*A*S*H*, Cheers, The Fugitive, the “Who Shot JR?” episode of Dallas), popular movies and miniseries (Gone With the Wind, Roots, The Thornbirds, The Day After), and special events (The Beatles’ appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Michael Jackson, Bob Hope Christmas Specials, the Academy Awards).
But one broadcast on the list stands out precisely because it is so ordinary. It is an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies called “The Giant Jackrabbit” broadcast on January 8, 1964. This was not a season finale or hyped cliffhanger. Nor was it a “very special” episode in which Jed lectures Jethro about gambling addiction or Granny shows Miss Hathaway the dangers of prescription barbiturates. So how and why did this regular episode of a sitcom make its way onto the most watched list?
Certainly The Beverly Hillbillies was an immensely popular show that year. It would be the top rated series for the 1963–1964 season. And the television broadcasting landscape was quite different in 1964. Everyone realizes that cable and satellite TV were not available, but 1964 was the first year that new television sets were legally required to contain a UHF tuner. Most households were unable to receive UHF, so their choices were for the most part limited to ABC, NBC, and CBS stations. Still, that doesn’t explain why this episode alone made it onto the list.
January 8, 1964 was also the date on which President Lyndon Johnson gave his first State of the Union address to the nation. This SOTU speech was the first since President Kennedy had been assassinated less than three months earlier. State of the Union broadcasts are not included on the “most watched” list, so is it possible that a nation still in shock over the death of JFK tuned into LBJ and stuck around to watch Jed and Granny?
In “The Giant Jackrabbit,” Granny mistakes an escaped kangaroo for a very large jackrabbit. This plot will be familiar to fans of Warner Brothers cartoons as several of those have Sylvester mistaking a baby kangaroo for a giant mouse.
Thanks to the bold efforts of the Sylvester cartoons and The Beverly Hillbillies to raise awareness of the problem of unsecure kangaroo transport, zoo keeping methods improved and a public education campaign was launched to help people distinguish between kangaroos and various rodent species. Thus was the two decade scourge of escaped and misidentified kangaroos eradicated.