by Joe Shea
Nov. 22, 2013
IT'S NEVER TOO LATE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Not long ago, I came across a photo book entitled "Stand By: NBC News." Published by the network's publicity department in 1961, it shows the news operation in all of its analog glory as it was swiftly adapting to covering the world at the dawn of the Kennedy years.
The photography is in the unposed black-and-white cinema verité style that was in vogue then, capturing the organized chaos of a network news operation at its zenith.
And then you see the tools they used - the battered old Royal typewriters, the reel-to-reel audio tape machines, the patch cords, the clattering teletype machines, the 16mm motion picture film cameras, the Moviola film editing machines, the bulky studio camera units and the thousands of feet of wiring.
Television news in the early 1960s was still getting its act together. It could handle covering live events scheduled well in advance. like political conventions and presidential debates. The documentary units could produce great programs, but the turnaround time could be lengthy. And it took until September 1963 for CBS and NBC to expand their evening newscasts from 15 to 30 minutes. Covering breaking news was nearly technically impossible.
That is what makes the record of what the television networks did on Nov. 22, 1963, and in the three subsequent days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so remarkable. A medium with little experience in covering a story so large in real time nonetheless did so magnificently.
This was new territory for television. Some of the old hands in those newsrooms were working when Franklin D. Roosevelt died 18 years earlier, the last time a President died in office. There hadn't been a presidential assassination since William McKinley in 1901.
It's generally accepted that those four days in November, 50 years ago today, were the moment that television news came of age. But it also happened to be the moment when television had the editorial and technical chops to be able to cover the biggest news story since the end of World War II.
The technical advances in the two years between the publishing of NBC's "Stand By" and the day of the assassination were considerable. Videotape was becoming a routine part of television news operations, although field coverage was still done with film cameras. Telstar, the first communications satellite, was launched in 1962, enabling foreign film stories to be transmitted directly to New York instead of having film flown in from overseas. And NBC and CBS started opening more bureaus at home and abroad.
These three things enabled network television news to compete for breaking news on an even footing with newspapers, and would mark the beginning of TV, rather than newspapers, becoming the primary source of news for Americans.
If Kennedy's assassination happened just a couple of years sooner, it's doubtful that the coverage would have been as good. It would have looked a lot like the first couple of hours of reporting after the shots were fired in Dallas, where it was mostly "radio with pictures" coverage until the first video reports started coming in.
It took nearly a half-hour before the three networks could get their broadcast studios fired up for live coverage. Technical glitches were numerous, and the news people on duty struggled nightly to bring order out of the chaos.
One can watch the coverage of all three networks on YouTube and see how primitive it looks from today's vantage point - especially ABC, which did not have the resources of the other networks in 1963.
But after the initial stumbles, the coverage improved. Within hours of the first news from Dallas, the decision was made by the three networks to scrap all regular programs and commercials until after Kennedy's funeral. The collective cost to the networks and ad agencies was more than $32 million - real big money in those days.
The impromptu video vigil that was created by the non-stop coverage helped a nation grieve as one. By the end of Friday night, about two-thirds of all homes with televisions were watching. By the day of Kennedy's funeral on Monday, 93 percent of the nation's sets were tuned into the grief.
It soon became clear that every bit of equipment was going to be needed to broadcast this story, particularly for the funeral, so the three networks pooled their equipment.
On a coin toss, CBS was selected as the lead network to produce and lead the coverage. Extra cameras and mobile units were brought in from as far away as California. An emergency master control room was installed in the Capitol. Utility crews opened manholes so underground cables could be strung along the route of the procession.
More than 50 full-sized cameras and more than 20 mobile units were deployed to broadcast the funeral march. The black-and-white broadcast that day still brings chills when one watches it five decades later. Its graceful and dignified tone is pitch-perfect, compared to the pictures that were broadcast the previous day of the murder of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
On a hunch, NBC switched from the pool feed from the Capitol to the Dallas Police headquarters, where Oswald was to be transferred from city custody to the county jail. From out of the shadows came nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who fired a pistol into Oswald's gut from point-blank range.
It was the first live homicide ever broadcast on television, at least for NBC viewers. CBS and ABC missed it, although CBS caught up by using the brand-new videotape techniques of slow-motion and freeze-frame playback.
By NBC's reckoning, it broadcast 71 hours and 36 minutes of news programming from the first bulletin at 1:45 p.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 22, to sign off at 1:17 a.m. EST on Tuesday, Nov. 26. The other networks were on for almost as long.
And as programming gradually returned to normal, it was clear that the TV coverage of those traumatic events had reshaped the media landscape.
There would be other "where were you when you heard the news?" moments - the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Apollo 11 Moon landing, President Nixon's resignation, the murder of Beatle John Lennon, the assassination attempt on President Reagan, the explosion of the Challenger, the razing of the Berlin Wall, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
All of these moments were defined by television, and the coverage followed the template set during those four days in November, 50 years ago.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.