A World Listened and Watched 

22 November 2018 tbs.pm/67844

Radio-TV meets greatest challenge in wake of JFK tragedy;
Dropping of regular programs to cost about $32 million


From Broadcasting magazine for 2 December 1963

The story of broadcasting’s all-encompassing coverage of the death of President John F. Kennedy and the tense ensuing events, unwavering for four days, was one of superlatives — the most people, the most hours, the biggest losses and the most raw emotion that broadcasting had ever known.

When it was over it drew unqualified praise from the general public, public officials and even the TV-radio critics.

The coverage was galvanized into action at approximately 1:40 p.m. (EST) on Nov. 22 when the news was flashed from Dallas that there was a report that the President had been shot.

Commercial programing on networks and stations was halted almost at once as the most massive and most concentrated broadcasting coverage in history got underway. It touched off what news directors called the “touchiest” single assignment in their experience.

Bare statistics indicate dimensions of the story. In almost four days, the radio and television networks used the services of more than 2,100 employees, at one time or another, here and abroad. This figure, of course, does not include the undetermined number on the job at stations throughout the country.

Perhaps an even more compelling statistic is the number of hours the networks were on the air with this story alone. The reported breakdown: NBC-TV, 71 hours, 36 minutes; NBC Radio, 68 hours, 11 minutes; CBS-TV, 55 hours; CBS Radio, 58 hours, 12 minutes; ABC-TV, 60 hours; ABC Radio, 80 hours; Mutual, 64 hours.

The best available estimates last week placed the total cost of the four days to broadcasters, advertising agencies and station representatives at more than $32 million.

An undeterminable amount of this was expected to be recouped through the use of “make-goods” for many of the national spot commercials that had to be cancelled and it was thought that to some extent some of the network pre-emption losses might be made up.

The $32 million breakdown:

  • Pre-emption of TV network programing and TV spot and local commercials — $18.8 million. [$149m in 2018, allowing for inflation]
  • Pre-emption of radio network programing and radio spot and local commercials — $6.8 million. [$56m]
  • Expenditures by the television and radio networks, alone, in providing coverage — $3.1 million. [$25.6m]
  • Commissions to advertising agencies and representatives — $3.3 million. [$27.2m]

NBC News correspondents David Brinkley and Chet Huntley watch with absorbed interest the monitor carrying the pool coverage of President Kennedy’s funeral.

Among the costs and losses that must be added to these figures are the un-ascertainable expenses of the many stations and station groups that set up special coverage facilities, particularly in Washington; augmented their existing news operations in Washington and elsewhere, and expanded their local news department outlays to meet the demands of the occasion.

If independent program producers find themselves with one less program to produce, per series, than they had expected to turn out, this too will impose additional “losses” that somebody will have to absorb.

It was emphasized that official estimates of both probable pre-emption losses and out-of-pocket costs for coverage simply could not be computed so soon after the event — and probably would not be available for several weeks. In some cases the exact losses — as in national spot pre-emptions — may never be known.

◼︎ Pick A Number

Offhand estimates varied widely. Some network sources thought, for example, that their own organization’s pre-emption losses alone might run to $8.5 million.

The $32 million overall estimate anticipated that, in the final analysis, the network pre-emption losses probably would total around $7 million, predominantly in TV.

The horse-drawn caisson bearing the casket of President John F. Kennedy moves toward the Arlington National Cemetery as the world, through television, watches each step of its progress along the way.

Estimates of TV and radio network coverage costs were generally lumped together at NBC, CBS and ABC. All told, they were expected to average more than $1 million per network, not counting Mutual’s out-of-pocket expenses for which no ready estimate was available.

Lawrence Webb, managing director of the Station Representatives Association, had this to say about efforts to reach agreements on the handling of pre-empted spot announcements — and about efforts to put a dollar-and-cents figure on the service broadcasting had rendered during the dark four days:

“As nearly as can be determined, everyone concerned — agencies, advertisers. broadcasters, station representatives — are cooperating in the effort to work out the problem as best they cart on an individual basis.

“Much of the loss of spot broadcasting commercial time will be made up. There will be, without any doubt, some losses in revenue, but in the face of what has happened, who cares to try to figure it out in dollars and cents?”

Worldwide broadcast coverage of the events around President Kennedy’s assassination was implemented by Radio Press International, which broadcast to its more than 130 global subscribers live reports and interviews with many of the principals involved.

In a poignant moment during the ceremonies inside St. Matthews Cathedral, Richard Cardinal Cushing stoops to kiss little Caroline Kennedy.

RPI was able to broadcast statements by the alleged assassin. Lee Harvey Oswald, as well as the sound of the shot that killed Oswald as he was being transferred from the Dallas police station.

Featured were reaction statements from key European and Asian cities, including statements by Pope Paul VI and Cuban Premiere Fidel Castro.

United Press International Newsfilm claimed it provided the first film for TV of President Kennedy’s assassination when it sold sequences shot by Dallas amateur photographer Marie Muchmore to WNEW-TV New York, which showed it last Tuesday (Nov. 26).

The 8mm film, which has been enlarged to 16mm, shows the President being hit by the bullets as Mrs. Kennedy and a Secret Service agent try to help him. UPI Newsfilm rushed additional copies to its subscribers around the world.

◼︎ Back To SOP

In resuming commercial programing on Nov. 26, the networks and most stations across the country had adjusted program schedules to reflect both the national news developments over the long weekend as well as to avoid programs or program approaches which could be considered to be in poor taste.

While networks worked quickly to supply maximum coverage of events on the day of President Kennedy’s funeral the nation was evidently paying close attention to their work.

An A. C. Nielsen Co. report on percent of households viewing TV Monday, Nov. 25, in New York City, which is expected to reflect national viewing figures for that day, indicates an estimated 93% of TV-equipped households saw the requiem mass and the following funeral procession to Arlington National Cemetery.

According to the Nielsen report, the average New York family watched TV coverage of the events during the three and-a-half day period for 34 hours.

With first news of the President’s death, viewing jumped abruptly to 40% of the city’s homes, twice its normal level.

Further Nielsen data shows average tune-in between 9 a.m. and midnight to be 50% to 55% and 67% on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, respectively.

ABC News

“Perhaps the biggest problem we faced in covering the Kennedy tragedy and its aftermath, ironically enough, was to communicate rapidly enough to our newsmen in the field.”

This commentary was offered last week by Elmer Lower, president of ABC News, special events and public affairs, while summing up what he called “the toughest job I have ever had in 30 years in journalism.” He stressed that his observation in no way detracted from the “superhuman efforts” of the entire ABC News team, but was a reflection of the complexities inherent in covering a volatile story of awesome dimensions.

“With no opportunity to plan, and with news breaking so fast, we could not always get in touch with people who had to make decisions,” Mr. Lower explained. “We couldn’t always get news out to them in time that some dignitary was about to arrive, or notify them in time to get one of our newsmen to certain locations.”

◼︎ 500 Activated

President Johnson as he made his first important speech before a joint session of the House and Senate on Wednesday. The televised address brought enthusiastic applause from both sides of the aisle.

An urgent message relayed to Mr. Lower while he was relaxing in the pool of the New York Athletic Club that fateful Friday set in motion an undertaking that ultimately involved approximately 500 ABC employees, largely from the news and engineering departments.

In a matter of hours, arrangements were made to house key personnel from the news and engineering departments in New York in three floors of a motel near the network’s headquarters and in Washington in a hotel across the street from ABC News’ building there. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, Mr. Lower related, many staffers averaged only three to four hours sleep because of late-night planning conferences.

Washington became the scene of a “prodigious lash-up” of broadcast equipment. All told, ABC-TV utilized 40 live camera units in various locations, most of which were concentrated in the capital. Six mobile units were used by ABC-TV, three of which were from New York headquarters. One was obtained from WJZ-TV Baltimore, a second from WTTG(TV) Washington and the third was rented. Some affiliated stations which provided remotes, particularly WFAA-TV Dallas, also used mobile units.

◼︎ Staff Deployment

Mr. Lower recalled that his first decisions involved redeployment of staff and equipment and five ABC newsmen were flown to Dallas and seven to Washington. One newsman got a job in a hurry: former CBS staffer Bill Downs, who has been writing novels the past few years, was scheduled to join ABC News next month, but Mr. Lower hired him on the eventful day. Mr. Downs met the plane bringing Secretary of State Dean Rusk at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington — and made his ABC debut.

In all, almost 60 hours of news, special events public affairs and special memorial programing was placed on the TV network. ABC-TV remained on the air until 2 a.m. on Saturday (Nov. 23) and on subsequent days from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST.

ABC-TV Hollywood remained on the air three additional hours (because of the time differential) and carried video tape programs which had not been telecast earlier in the day in that part of the country.

Correspondents who participated in ABC-TVs coverage included: In Washington — Howard K. Smith (he heard the tragic news on a Cairo-to-New York plane), Edward P. Morgan, Robert Clark, William H. Lawrence, John Scab, Richard Bate, John Rolfson, and Robert Fleming.

◼︎ Texas Crew

It was four days of top-echelon conferences at ABC-TV by such as (l-r) Elmer Lower, president, ABC News; Leonard Goldenson, president, AB-PT, and Stephen Riddleberger, ABC News vice president and general manager.

In Dallas: Paul Good, Bill Lord, Roger Sharp and the staff of WFAA-TV, including news director Bob Walker and reporter Jay Watson. (Mr. Lower’s comment: “WFAA-AM-TV did a magnificent job.”)

In New York: Ron Cochran, Bob Young, Don Goddard, Murphy Martin (who also covered the last day in Dallas), Ed Silverman, Lisa Howard, Jules Bergman, Bill Beutel and Jim Burns.

Others who reported included Dave Jayne in Hyannis, Mass.; Alex Dreier and Frank Reynolds in Chicago; Al Mann in Los Angeles; Hugh Hill at Johnson City, Tex.; John MacVane and Mal Goode at the United Nations; John Casserly, Rome; Lou Cioffi, Paris; Sam Jaffe, Moscow; Ray Falk, Tokyo; Bill Sheehan, London. James C. Hagerty, vice president in charge of corporate relations for American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, parent company of the network, appeared on various programs, correlating the events with his experience as news secretary to President Eisenhower.

Working with Mr. Lower on supervision of the ABC News coverage were Jesse Zousmer, director of television news: Robert J. Quinn, executive producer and John Madigan, director of basic news coverage.

◼︎ Radio Side

ABC Radio’s coverage extended through 80 hours, encompassing on-the-spot news reports, special programs, memorial music, interviews and summaries. News coverage was under the direction of Tom O’Brien, national news director, who broke away from a meeting of regional affiliates to fly to Dallas when he was alerted to the crisis.

Don Gardiner served as ABC Radio anchorman throughout the coverage and was assisted by Quincy Howe, Les Griffith, Charles Woods and Jim Harriott.

Its coverage included reports from nearly 100 correspondents and affiliated newsmen here and abroad. Specials included memorial services in each of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths; special services from Harvard LTniver-sity; the voices of the Sistine Chapel Choir in Rome and “A Tribute to John F. Kennedy from the Arts,” with Frederic March. Florence Eldredge, Charlton Heston, Marian Anderson and Isaac Stern. Coverage was made available to the Armed Forces Radio Service and to WRUL New York, international shortwave station.

By last Tuesday, Mr. Lower still looked tired but he confessed he had managed to complete his swim that afternoon in the NYAC pool. In retrospect, he felt there was at least one lesson to be learned from the strenuous undertaking.

“We should develop a system of spotters, much as we have at football games,” he ventured. “With so many dignitaries from the emerging nations likely to figure in momentous events, we should have people on call who can assist us with names of these people and with pertinent background.”

CBS News

CBS News’s Blair Clark

The news coverage was performed with “instant editorial judgment,” the news heads of CBS recalled of the startling events that were set in motion with the first bulletin announcing that the President had been shot.

Blair Clark, general manager and vice president, CBS News, was lunching with correspondent Charles Collingwood some blocks away from the Graybar building where CBS’s “news control” area is located. A phone call from his office summoned Mr. Clark who “collected Collingwood and we left without paying the check and ‘loping’ most of the way.” Blair Clark listened to a transistor radio during the sprint.

Ernest Leiser, assistant general manager for TV news at CBS, also was at lunch. He quickly made tracks for the Graybar building (420 Lexington Avenue) where he stationed himself at an office cubicle that is used for operational purposes.

“Never did we do so much programing for so intensive a period of time without enough people,” Mr. Leiser said in an interview last week.

◼︎ Force Of 660

The CBS force totaled 660 people — 310 “above-the-line” people made up of newsmen, producers, associate producers, editors, writers, film cameramen, etc. and 350 technicians and others in operations.

The network estimated it was on the air more than 55 hours in covering the news events, starting on Nov. 22. Other CBS statistics: A total of 35 live camera units, 28 of them alone set up in Washington where CBS had pulled the monthly three-network pool assignment for November. Pickups were made in a total of 10 cities including such news-making centers as Dallas, Washington. New York, and Boston.

◼︎ Before The Shots

How was CBS News set up just before the assassination report? Mr. Leiser explained KRLD-TV, the CBS affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, had a remote unit at the trade mart in Dallas where the Kennedy motorcade was headed. KRLD-TV planned to carry the President’s speech there live. CBS-TV normally would have decided later whether or not it would use a section of the tape.

Ironically, in the regular news briefing that day, CBS News executives had discussed the possibility of a hostile demonstration at Dallas at the airport. A CBS correspondent and a cameraman were traveling with the Kennedy party.

Once the news of the assassination broke, however, it was a matter of “covering instantly and with instant editorial judgment while considering the matter of instant taste,” Mr. Clark observed. KRLD-TV newsman Eddie Barker, after having talked to a doctor at the hospital, made the initial report that the President was dead. Walter Cronkite in New York continually referred to this report but emphasized it was not official. Thus, CBS had a beat of several minutes that Mr. Kennedy had died of his wounds.

◼︎ Oswald Shooting

As an example of instant demands, Mr. Clark noted that the shooting of Lee Oswald occurred only minutes before the network coverage of the removal of President Kennedy’s body to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Typical of the instantaneous switching is this brief excerpt from the CBS News log: “12:10 — special report from New York with reports also from Washington; 12:20 — switch from Roger Mudd in Washington to Harry Reasoner to New York for six seconds to call in Dallas (shooting of Oswald); 12:27 —switch to Reasoner in New York for recapitulation; 12:30 — back to Dallas for a description by Robert Huffaker, KRLD-TV newsman; 12:31 — switch to Reasoner for replay of video tape; 12:33 — switch back to Dallas for report of arrest of man who allegedly shot Oswald; 12:42 — back to Reasoner who reported on the man who shot Oswald and a replay of video tape. 12:45 — recapitulation of shooting from Dallas; 12:51 — to Washington for the scene as the caisson arrived to remove the President’s body to the Rotunda.”

◼︎ Cronkite Anchor Man

As it was in all radio and TV newsrooms, it was four days of quick decision by members of the CBS-TV News staff. (l-r) Robert Wussler, producer; Ralph Paskman, assignment manager, who is passing out assignments to Jeff Gralnick, reporter (with back to camera), and Don Webster, reporter.

For CBS-TV, Walter Cronkite was anchor man in New York, assisted by several news correspondents, Robert Trout, Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid and Harry Reasoner among them; Dan Rather was stationed in Dallas as was White House correspondent Robert Pierpoint (who later reported from Washington). Washington on-the-air coverage also featured Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, George Herman, and Neil Strawser.

CBS Radio logged 58 hours, 12 minutes in its near four-day coverage. An estimated 80 newsmen were engaged — many of these people of course overlapped in TV.

Among contributing affiliates (aside from the key role of KRLD-TV) : KNX Los Angeles, which supplied an interview by Ray Powell of a shipmate of the late President; WCAU-TV Philadelphia, which produced a special program, and WEEI Boston for a statement of Richard Cardinal Cushing.

◼︎ Thomas Back

Lowell Thomas, veteran CBS newscaster in his first broadcast since a recent illness, delivered a commentary on CBS Radio on Nov. 25. Among the special programs: “The Torch Has Been Passed,’’ featuring a scholarly discussion on problems of government continuity, and on both radio and TV networks at CBS.

Said Mr. Clark: “We had to start to look ahead as soon as possible, even on Friday (Nov. 22) to get in the importance of the continuity in the American system of government.” He emphasized the need for the networks to reassure the viewing populace, and by Saturday, the “Torch” program was emphasizing just that point.

CBS’s special reports and programs during the period totaled 14 and all of varying lengths. Decisions, it was noted, were made by Frank Stanton, CBS Inc. president; Richard S. Salant, president of CBS News (who was in Puerto Rico attending a network-affiliates board joint meeting on Nov. 22, and was delayed by bad weather, arriving in New York on Nov. 23); Mr. Clark and Mr. Leiser.

Mr. Leiser was at the operations helm. Mr. Clark served as executive liaison with Mr. Stanton, James T. Aubrey Jr., CBS-TV president, and was joined by Mr. Salant on the latter’s arrival in New York.


Mutual reported it logged 64 hours and 15 minutes of broadcast time in reporting the assassination story and granted permission to 100 nonaffiliated stations who requested the use of its programs. MBS stuck to the strict noncommercial pattern followed by the other networks during the four-day period.

From 1:41 p.m. EST Friday when Mutual first flashed the news through conclusion of funeral ceremonies on Monday, Mutual had 48 newsmen and correspondents on the air from international points stretching as far from Dallas as Saigon and Moscow.

Anchor men for the network’s coverage were Charles Warren in Washington and Jack Allen in New York, while supervision of overall reports was managed by Stephen McCormick.

Charles Ray, Mutual’s engineering director in Washington coordinated technical facilities for the operation.

NBC News

Said Julian Goodman, vice president, NBC News, “after the first report that President Kennedy was shot, ‘broadcast operations control’ took the air and kept it.”

By Tuesday morning when commercial programing resumed, NBC-TV had totaled 71 hours 36 minutes in coverage. In the near four-day period, NBC-TV was on the air continuously at one stretch for 41 hours and 18 minutes (Nov. 24, 8 a.m. EST until Nov. 26. 1:18 a.m. EST). NBC Radio carried 68 hours and 11 minutes.

NBC News said it mobilized more than 400 newsmen and technicians, sending correspondents, camera crews and other personnel to Dallas, Washington, Boston and Hyannis Port as the story developed.

In covering President Kennedy’s funeral Nov. 25, NBC-TV used 44 cameras in more than 65 locations. Of these, 23 were used for pool coverage and 21 by NBC itself. Scores of newsmen, cameramen and engineers were sent to Washington from New York and other points.

◼︎ At Lunch

At the time of the assassination, Mr. Goodman was at lunch at the executive dining room on the sixth floor of the RCA building that houses NBC. He rushed to the floor directly below where the NBC “instant news central” studio is located. The news staff at that point was busily assembling incoming reports and putting them on the air.

NBC immediately chartered a 707 Pan American jetliner in New York for a flight to Dallas. On it were correspondent Edwin Newman and about 35 people — technicians and cameramen — and also equipment, Mr. Goodman related.

Upon news that the President’s body was being flown from Dallas to Washington. the jetliner and its cargo were diverted while in (fight and sent directly to Washington.

By Friday night, Mr. Goodman recalled, remotes already were set up at Andrews Field, the White House, at the U. S. Capitol, all in Washington; two locations in Dallas; a remote in New York, another in Hyannis Port and later a remote unit was established at the Dulles airport (Washington).

◼︎ Thorough Job

“NBC management urged that a thorough news job be accomplished as we have had in the past,” Mr. Goodman said. “From then on, it was by reflex and extra effort by the entire news operation.

“The news handling was bigger than anything necessary in the past,” Mr. Goodman declared.

In handling the news coordination, Mr. Goodman worked under the supervision of William R. McAndrew, executive vice president in charge of NBC News. Mr. McAndrew, also lunching when news of the shooting was reported, joined the control center almost immediately.

Frank McGee, Bill Ryan. Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Merrill Mueller were the hard core around whom the NBC News team operated.

The most vivid TV experiences in Mr. Goodman’s memory: the shooting of Lee Oswald in Dallas (caught live by NBC-TV) and the watching of the faces in the crowd filing by the President’s casket lying in state in the rotunda of the United States Capitol — NBC-TV cameras, as a measure of respect, were trained on the scene all night, Sunday, with no narration and with appropriate music.

◼︎ Affiliate Helps

WBAP-TV Fort Worth-Dallas, an NBC affiliate, played a key role. A mobile unit already was covering the motorcade when the assassination took place, WBAP-TV’s Charles Murphy supplied first on-scene-reports. NBC’s correspondent Robert MacNeil and cameraman David Weigman, who had accompanied the presidential party from Washington, provided film and voice reports. To augment the Dallas complement, NBC correspondent Tom Pettit and producer Fred Rheinstein were ordered to Dallas from regular posts in Los Angeles. It was Mr. Pettit who made TV history at the scene of the shooting of Oswald.

Other NBC key correspondents: Sander Vanocur, Ray Scherer, Elie Abel, Robert Goralski, Martin Agronsky, Nancy Dickerson, Herbert Kaplow, Peter Hackes, Bryson Rash, Richard Harkness, Robert Abernathy and Russ Ward.

Chet Hagen, Reuven Frank and Craig Fisher served as producers, alternating three production teams each day. William H. Trevarthen, NBC’s vice president, operations and engineering, said a total of 33 mobile units, containing from one to six cameras each, was brought into operation to cover the story.

These included four built in Washington by transforming station wagons and passenger cars into emergency TV studios. Mobile units were moved to Washington from Philadelphia, Norfolk and Pittsburgh and units also were ordered to Boston and Hyannis Port. Twenty-two tape recorders were used in the four-day coverage.

NBC scheduled more than a half-dozen special reports and programs during its coverage period. Among the highlights was a 19-minute tribute prepared by the British cast of the BBC-TV’s That Was the Week That Was. It was shown on Sunday night and NBC received more than 1,000 telephone calls from viewers praising the program. Later it was repeated. As did CBS and ABC, NBC telecast especially performed music concerts.

Robert Northshield, general manager, NBC News, was in the supervising team as were Rex Goad, director of NBC News; Malcolm R. Johnson, NBC News manager; Donald Meaney, director of NBC News programs, among others.

When the shooting of Oswald occurred Sunday, Mr. Goodman recalled, NBC was about to shift to a religious tribute. At that point Mr. Rheinstein’s dramatic call came to NBC in New York: “give me the air quick!”

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