TV News in 1963

TV was an urban home entertainment luxury, a system  lacking infrastructure until the coaxial cable connected east and west coasts in 1951. As other cities linked to the system, network television was born. (It’s helpful to think of the whole process similar to the transcontinental railroad.)


Broadcast news is essentially the result of a 1930’s arrangement between the radio industry and the government, represented by the Federal Communications Commission. In exchange for access of the public airwaves for no charge, broadcasters became obligated to run programming to serve the public good, i.e., public affairs and news. This model was carried over when television prospered.

Despite positive critical reviews of the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 and, the 1952 and 1956 national political conventions, the TV industry didn’t begin realize the potential of public affairs or news programming.

Senator Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954.

Senator Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954.

To illustrate, only ABC and and the Dumont networks televised all of the Army-McCarthy hearings. NBC carried some of the proceedings and then, abandoned them as to not disturb the goodwill of its advertisers.

Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy DebateNot until the 1960 debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon did TV realize public affairs programming could provide an audience. After his election, the networks carried President Kennedy’s news conferences live, with millions tuning in. Still, such programming wasn’t a moneymaker.

–The President wasn’t about to break for two minutes during a Q&A so TV could run commercials.

Walter Cronkite, anchors The CBS Evening News, September 2, 1963.

Walter Cronkite, anchors The CBS Evening News, September 2, 1963.

Prior to September, 1963 the network evening news was fifteen minutes. News executives pleaded with their programming departments to authorize a thirty minute show but programmers insisted they could never get the affiliates, each network’s images local stations not owned by the network, to give up the extra quarter hour and commercial revenue that came with it. On Monday, September 2, Labor Day, CBS broke through the fifteen minute barrier with a half hour edition of The CBS Evening News. NBC expanded its Huntley-Brinkley Report to a half hour a week later.

dan-akens-bolexIn the days before ubiquitous live broadcasts and digital transmission, reporters served as their own camera operators, using 16 mm film. For the time, it was a portable format. On the negative side, the cameras had no sound capabilities. A reporter doing interviews needed a camera that recorded sound and that was a different proposition. Such a camera required an audio deck that recorded sound on reel-to-reel tape. That meant a two man crew, plus, the reporter. In either case, the film had to be developed, the narration had to be recorded and the film had to be edited.

Filmed reports from out of town were sent to New York on a plane or, transmitted via telephone lines.

Three Shots were Fired is an e-book on network television coverage of the JFK assassination. It is available on Amazon.


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