13 TV Firsts You Probably Didn't Realize You Were Witnessing


Watching TV has become a part of everyday life for most of us, but we don't even realize how much the landscape has changed since it first became popular.

We've become so desensitized to a lot of TV's most popular themes, that it's hard to believe shows haven't always been this way. For example, it was completely taboo for a show to display a toilet on screen. Now? It seems totally normal.

So let's take a stroll down memory lane and look at some of the biggest TV "firsts," and see if you remember watching any of them!

1. First Major Death


Characters getting killed off shows seems to be the norm now. I can't remember the last series I watched where a fan-favorite didn't meet an untimely death. But it didn't always used to be that way.

Those of you who watched the popular show Bonanza will remember how shocked you were when Hoss Cartwright, played by Dan Blocker, was killed off the show in 1972. Sadly, Blocker had died unexpectedly in real life, so the producers had to decide the fate of his character.


The show chose to kill the character in an accident on the show, which left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths. The show's future was up in the air for a while, but managed to last for another season after Blocker's death.

2. First Belly Button

Though you may have thought that the first female belly button to appear on TV was Barbara Eden in I Dream Of Jeannie, you'd be wrong! Eden was explicitly forbidden from showing her navel on screen, and her costumes reflected that.

The National Association of Broadcasters established its Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters in 1951, and it prohibited the display of a woman's belly button. Even though this stayed in place until 1983, there were still a few slip-ups.

In 1964, Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek showed off her belly button (and toned abs!) in the episode "Mirror, Mirror." The scene managed to get by censors, and even though it was brief, it was the first time a woman's belly button had been seen on TV.

Cher, however, was the first main performer on a television show to purposefully display her belly button, which got her into a lot of trouble in 1971.

"All I know is I got in trouble for showing my belly button, and every time I turned around after I went off the air, all you saw were Cheryl Ladd's boobs," Cher said of the controversy.

3. First Pregnancy


Obviously women got pregnant regardless of whether or not they were on TV, but it was very taboo to even say the word pregnant on screen.

There are differing opinions on who was the first person to be pregnant on TV, but one of them is definitely more well-remembered than the other.

Though it's hard to confirm because no footage of the show exists anymore, only memories from past viewers, the show Mary Kay and Johnny was the first show to have an on-screen pregnancy in 1948.

However, the more notable TV pregnancy was that of Lucille Ball, who stirred up a lot of controversy in 1952 when her character on I Love Lucy appeared on screen extremely pregnant. The episode was titled "Lucy Is Enceinte," which is French for pregnant, because network executives thought the word pregnant was "too vulgar" for television.

This was the first time "real-life" pregnancy was written into a TV show, as opposed to having pregnant actresses disguise their growing bellies.

4. First Same-Sex Kiss

Same-sex couples still don't have the representation they deserve on prime time television, but they have come a long way in the past few years.

Though there was a show Hot'l Baltimore in 1975 which featured gay characters, they were never shown to be intimate with each other. It wasn't until 1991 that TV saw its first same-sex kiss.

NBC aired an episode of L.A. Law called "He's a Crowd," and aired a scene that featured a straight lawyer named Abby Perkins and a bisexual character named C.J. Lamb kissing. The moment was so controversial, the network lost advertisers and received more than 85 calls.

NBC stood by it, however, saying they weren't concerned about losing sponsors and would just find new ones.

5. First Character With AIDS


The topic of HIV and AIDS is still taboo today, despite the efforts of people like Princess Diana who tried to break the stigma. That's why the character of Michael Pierson in the TV movie An Early Frost was so groundbreaking.

Pierson, portrayed by Aidan Quinn, was a gay lawyer in Chicago who was living with AIDS and had to find a way to tell his parents. The program was dubbed "the most important TV movie of the year," as it shed light on common misconceptions of HIV and AIDS.


For his role in the film, Quinn was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special.

6. First Interracial Couple


I Love Lucy was one of the most groundbreaking shows on the air, to the point where we don't even realize how many barriers it broke.

One of the biggest things about I Love Lucy was how she and Ricky, played by Ball's real husband Desi Arnaz, were the first interracial couple on television. The show did not try to downplay Arnaz's Cuban heritage, and even used his Spanish language and dancing skills as ways to make his character more attractive.

7. First Interracial Kiss

Okay, so this "first" is surrounded by controversy, because apparently the first interracial kiss happened numerous times, so let's look at all the options.

It's widely believed that the first interracial kiss happened between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols on a 1968 episode of Star Trek. It's believed to be the first-ever scripted kiss on American television, though the act of actually kissing was brought into question by Shatner. He claims that he and Nichols never actually had "full lip contact" during the scene, so it wasn't a kiss. Nichols disputes this claim, saying it definitely happened.


But even though many believe this was the first interracial kiss ever on TV, that's not totally true.

In 1967, Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. shared the first interracial kiss during the TV special Movin' with Nancy. During one of the segments, Nancy is singing What'd I Say as Sammy dances around her. Towards the end of the song, Sammy kisses the singer on the cheek.

The kiss was planned, but not made known to the network executives. Nancy and Sammy specifically shot the segment early in the day, knowing Sammy was booked later that day so re-shoots weren't an option.


THEN there's the episode of I Spy that aired in 1966, featuring a scripted interracial kiss between American actor Robert Culp and Vietnamese-French actress France Nuyen. Airing two years before the 1968 episode of Star Trek, it would take the title of first scripted television kiss on television...sort of.


But if you want to get really technical, the first interracial kiss was at the hands (er, lips) of the first interracial couple on TV, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The couple shared many kisses on I Love Lucy, but to many this "doesn't count" because despite Arnaz's Cuban ancestry, he was still generally considered a white male.

8. First Swear Word


Swearing on television is still pretty censored, although our definition of swear words now is a lot less strict than the early days of television (remember how I Love Lucy couldn't say "pregnant"?)

If you watch TV past 9pm, chances are you've noticed how much more lenient networks are with language, but that wasn't always the case. Though swear words were often "accidentally" dropped during awards shows or live broadcasts of concerts, the first scripted swear word didn't happen until 1999.

Many of you know Mark Harmon as Gibbs on NCIS, but before that he was Dr. Jack McNeil on Chicago Hope. He was the first television character to swear on scripted television, saying "shit happens."


But if you want to talk about lesser swear words being said, the word "damn" wasn't said on TV until 1965. Doris Packer, who played Miss Pringle on My Favorite Martian ad-libbed a line during an episode where her character was receiving the award for Teacher of the Year. Her response? "Damn thing probably doesn't even keep time."

9. First Abortion


This is still an extremely sensitive topic to this day, and very few shows dare to discuss the controversial medical procedure. The first television show to have a character undergo an abortion was on Another World in 1964. Susan Trustman played Patricia Matthews, who became pregnant with her boyfriend Tom Baxter's child.

Baxter did not want to have a child, so he convinced Matthews to have an abortion. They traveled to New York for the then-illegal procedure. Matthews ended up contracting a nasty infection from the abortion, which left her unable to have kids. She told Baxter about this, and he told her he never loved her. In a fit of Rage, Matthews shot Baxter and killed him.


The first legal abortion, after Roe v. Wade was passed, also occurred on a soap opera. Susan Lucci's character on All My Children, Erica Kane, underwent television's first legal abortion in 1972.

10. First Divorced Woman


Getting a divorce was not an option for television characters in the early days. Case and point: when Jean Hagen left The Danny Thomas Show due to her own personal dissatisfaction, the show decided to kill her character instead of having her get a divorce, for fear of it being too taboo.

But after Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz got divorced in 1960, Ball wanted to change that stigma. She was offered a one-year deal to shoot The Lucy Show, with CBS skeptical that she'd be funny enough on her own without a husband (ugh.)


Ball's character was named Lucy Carmichael, a widow with two children, who was sharing a house with a divorced woman named Vivian Bagley, who was a single mother. It was the first time a divorced woman appeared on primetime television.

Originally, Ball's character was also supposed to be divorced, but the network was worried people would already be displeased with Ball's real-life divorce.

11. First Openly Gay Character

While most people remember Ellen DeGeneres as the first character to come out as openly gay on television, this isn't entirely true. There a few instances that predated the iconic moment on Ellen, so let's take a look at those.

In 1971, the often-controversial show All In The Family introduced the first gay sitcom character, though he wasn't a lead character. Archie Bunker is shocked to find out that his friend Steve, the manly ex-football player, is a gay man. It was a groundbreaking moment for many reasons, not the least of which was because it portrayed a gay man as happy and comfortable in his own skin.

A year later in 1972, Vincent Schiavelli portrayed a set designer named Peter Panama on The Corner Bar who was openly gay. This role is considered TV's first recurring gay character.

Columbia Pictures

Then there was Billy Crystal as Jodie Dallas on Soap in 1997. Crystal's character is the first openly gay main character on a sitcom. Jodie Dallas appeared in 77 of the show's 85 episodes.


Of course, there's also Will & Grace to consider. In 1996, Will Truman, played by Eric McCormack, had the honor of being the first title character to be gay in a hit sitcom. He and Jack McFarland paved the way for more gay characters on television, being lead characters instead of one-off or recurring members of the cast.


But the one we all remember is Ellen DeGeneres as Ellen Morgan on her self-titled show, Ellen. Ellen's coming out in 1997 signified not only the first time a titular character revealed his or her sexuality on television after being in the closest, but also the first time an openly gay actress played an openly gay character on television.

To say Ellen was the first openly gay character on television would be incorrect, but to say her coming out was one of the most ground-breaking moment in television history would be completely accurate.

12. First Single Mom (By Choice)

CBS/Warner Bros.

Single moms on television weren't seen very often, and if they were, they weren't single by choice. The characters were usually widows left to raise their kids, like on The Partridge Family, or divorced and raising the kids on their own, like Lucy in The Lucy Show.

But it was unheard of for a woman to get pregnant and decide to raise a child without a father in the picture. "Family values" were still prominent on television, so to choose to raise a child on your own without a husband, or at the very least a boyfriend, was taboo.


Murphy Brown broke down barriers on this issue, to the point where the Vice President of the United States felt he had to condemn it. In September of 1991, the titular character decided she was going to keep her baby after finding out she's pregnant from an affair with her ex-husband. It was a pretty big deal for a 42-year-old single woman to decide to have a baby on her own, and people took notice.

Brown's pregnancy, which was written into the show due to Candice Bergen's real-life pregnancy, was highlighted over the entire fourth season. On May 18, 1992, her character gave birth to Avery Brown. The next day, Vice President Dan Quayle condemned the show for veering away from traditional family values.

“It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional women, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice," Quayle said.

Because Quayle only referred to Brown as a character, the show ended up addressing his comments in the next season of the show.

13. First Toilet


Yes, the moment we've all been waiting for: the first toilet to appear on television. Today it doesn't seem like a big deal...literally everyone uses the bathroom, so why would a toilet be offensive? That's a great question, and we'll add it to our list of inquiries about the way TV used to work.

It wasn't until 1957 that a toilet was shown on television, and it wasn't even a FULL toilet. On an episode of Leave It To Beaver, Wally and Beaver buy a pet alligator and need somewhere to put it. Their logical choice? The toilet tank.


The actual filming of this scene was a nightmare, and not because of an alligator. The network refused to let the crew actually film the toilet, despite it being an integral part of the episode. In the end, CBS and the crew had to compromise. The actual toilet bowl wasn't shown on TV, but the tank was briefly seen as the boys fed the alligator.

It took until All In The Family in the '70s for the sound of a flushing toilet to make it onto TV.

Things that seem so commonplace to us on TV today were once groundbreaking moments in broadcast history. Which moments do you remember?