to be, when Nov. 22 rolled around, most anyone could remember where they were
and what they were doing when the news broke about President Kennedy being
gunned down on the streets of Dallas in 1963.
I was 16 then and in my third year of high school. I got the bad news, along
with the rest of my 1 p.m. English class, from the school’s principal who
delivered it over the PA system. I had already been working in broadcasting
for a couple of years, pulling a weekend shift at a local station.
I have plenty of memories of that Friday and the next three equally sad days,
but it’s not my purpose here to share my personal experiences. I want to focus
on is technology—what broadcasters had available then for getting this “story
of the century” out to the world versus what we now have and largely take for
IMAGE ORTHICON CAMERAS
If you’d been at Love Field or the Trade Mart in Dallas on that particular
Friday, you likely would have noticed some state-of-the-art image orthicon TV
cameras. These beasts of that era were hard to ignore with their large profile
and a weight nearly 100 pounds. Cameras, as was the case with most broadcast
gear back then, were driven by scores of vacuum tubes. Interconnecting cables for
broadcast cameras were about the size of a large garden hose, and considerable
rack space and cooling was required for support electronics.
Even in a city the size of Dallas with its multiple TV stations, there weren’t
that many television cameras due to their cost—more than $150,000 in today’s dollars—and
the constant adjusting and maintenance required. Lenses and support hardware
were equally expensive, heavy and hard to move around. (Speaking of lenses,
while “Zoomars” were available, not everyone had them, as TV broadcasters had
spent quite a few dollars on fixed-focal length lenses and wanted to fully amortize
this investment before moving to the new-fangled zooms.)
In news events as important as a Presidential visit, it was common practice for
stations to share resources; generally, video from the remote cameras was made available
to any station that furnished equipment and crews. (Contrast this to the small,
inexpensive video cameras today that can run for years with nothing more in the
way of maintenance than a battery charge every so often.)
By November 1963, NTSC compatible color was almost a decade old, but telecasting
was still largely done only in shades of grey. This was due to the extreme cost
of color gear then. Adjusted for inflation, a 1960s color camera sold for more
than $400,000. These early models were even more bulky and ponderous than the
monochrome cameras of the day. Few studio productions and very few outdoor
events were captured in color in the early ’60s. (An equally low percentage of
the viewing public had bought into color, so it was probably just as well.)
The image orthicon TV cameras of 50 years ago, in addition to being expensive
and large, were not especially user-friendly. By no means were they “instant-on.”
Going from a cold start, a warm-up period of around 10 minutes, along with some
careful adjusting, was required before video was stable enough to be put on the
Maybe you’ve heard the story about CBS not being able to go live with Walter
Cronkite as he read the news flash about the JFK shooting. It was done as a
voiceover a “bulletin” slide. After things got back to normal following the
assassination, a standing order was enacted at the network that mandated a hot
camera to be available 24/7 in the CBS network newsroom.
CBS was not the only network affected by the inability to go to live video
right away. In reviewing the NBC recordings on YouTube included below, that network had the
same problem. In their case, however, a color film chain was available, so the
slide for the voiceover was aired in color.
We’ve all gotten caught at some time or another with our proverbial pants down,
and this certainly befell NBC that afternoon. In reviewing the network’s initial
coverage after the camera had warmed up sufficiently to go with live video, the
scene it captures appears extremely unpolished, almost amateurish. While very
professional and accomplished journalists—Chet Huntley, Frank McGee and Bill
Ryan—did their best to deliver the breaking story, the tools to assist in the effort
were embarrassingly few. Resources that even small market television stations
have today weren’t part of that 1963 NBC coverage.
Perhaps most striking is the total inability to get telephone audio on the air.
A reporter who was with the Kennedy motorcade, Bob MacNeil, succeeded in
getting a line through to New York, but due to technical difficulties or perhaps
control room limitations, it was impossible to put his call on the air. In
desperation, McGee, holding the telephone handset, asks the MacNeil to speak
slowly and then repeats what he hears into his studio microphone.
A few minutes later a small “telephone amplifier” is handed to McGee by someone
off-camera and is affixed to the phone handset. This cheap device immediately
breaks into feedback, creating more problems that it’s supposed to solve. McGee
resumes mouthing MacNeil’s words until a proper telephone hybrid connection can
be set up somewhere within the vast 30 Rock NBC enterprise.
Speaking of McGee and his microphone, it’s impossible not to notice the difference
in mics then and now. News microphones were almost exclusively large electrodynamic
units mounted on desk stands. The tiny, almost invisible tie-tac electrets
condenser lavs ubiquitous today didn’t exist then. Even the network news set of
50 years ago draws attention to itself in its overall plainness and drabness—just
a plain backdrop of wood paneling with no logos or any other artwork.
LOWER THIRDS, IFBs and PROMPTERS
The use of graphics was extremely limited, as there were no electronic
character generators in 1963. Everything for lower-thirds had to be lettered by
a staff artist or put together with press-on lettering and then photographed.
After the film was processed, the frames were mounted in glass-covered slides
and handed off to a projectionist who loaded them into a slide changer on the
telecine. This process kept graphics to a bare minimum—none of the constantly
moving headlines, snipes, or any other clutter that hides a lot of the screen
in today’s news programs.
Another thing missing 50 years ago was the IFB earpiece. Air talent took cues
from the floor director in most cases. In reviewing the surviving assassination
coverage, it’s hard not to notice a lot of off-camera “audio” as others in the
studio verbally cued the news presenters to breaking information. You’ll notice
too that the “talent” makes no bones about reading from paper copy. As the
assassination was a breaking story, there wasn’t much choice—prompting devices
did exist, but these were strictly mechanical and almost as difficult as the
aforementioned lower-third slides to update.
A news script or individual story had to be hand typed using a special typewriter
that made very large letters. Once the script was typed onto a continuous
length of paper, this had to be spooled and loaded into the prompter itself. In
most cases, prompters were placed on floor stands alongside cameras, rather
than being mounted on the cameras themselves. Multiple prompters were
problematic due to the necessity of synchronizing these mechanical “script
Press service copy was received at a maximum speed of about 60 words per
minute. Getting this from the news room to on-air involved ripping the printout
off the machine, running it down to the studio and handing it off to the air
talent. Newsroom automation didn’t exist. In the 1963 broadcast newsroom, the
most technically advanced piece of equipment would have been the IBM Selectric
typewriter—there were no computers, no desktop editing, not even a very
sophisticated telephone system.
Another thing we take totally for granted today is stable video. Looking
back 50 years ago, it was a totally different story. There were no frame syncs.
This is very obvious when NBC took a remote feed from the United Nations and
then another from NBC affiliate WBAP-TV in Ft. Worth, Texas. The vertical roll
and image tearing associated with taking asynchronous video were commonplace 50
years ago; viewers didn’t complain or even notice—it was just part of
BLACK & WHITE
I mentioned color video earlier. While most broadcasters and even networks
didn’t do much with it then, there were some exceptions. One of these was
WBAP-TV. The first few cut-ins from that station depicted the Ft. Worth anchor
in color. This ended after the third or fourth feed from that station to New
York. Apparently someone at NBC felt that the affiliate was upstaging the
network and killed the color on those feeds from that point on.
In reviewing the Ft. Worth inserts, it’s interesting to note that WBAP-TV had
better luck in airing a live phone call from the field. The “beep” every few
seconds superimposed on the conversation brings back a lot of memories. This beep
was mandated by regulatory bodies to ensure that the person whose conversation
was being aired or recorded knew it was not an ordinary phone call. The beeper
was supplied and installed by the phone company and couldn’t be disabled easily.
There were no smartphones or even cellphones back then. The same goes for personal
computers, camcorders, handheld TVs, or even microprocessors. The integrated
circuit had been patented, but was still had a long way to go before it
appeared in electronic equipment intended for either the general public or
broadcasters. Transistors had been on the scene for a decade or so, but were
still in their relative infancy and couldn’t do many of the things their tube
precursors did. Also, they were fairly fragile and finicky and for those
reasons had not made their way into much broadcast gear.
CAPTURING & EDITING NEWS
What about news footage in 1963? This was basically limited to motion-picture
film, ubiquitous in television broadcasting then. The 16 mm movie cameras, chiefly
Arriflexes, Auricons and Bolexes, used by many stations weren’t in the same
league as today’s tiny models that capture hours of HD content on solid-state
memory cards. And film playback wasn’t exactly instantaneous. Developing could
take a half-hour or so and then the film was turned over to an editor.
Long before television, film editing had been honed into a fine art by
Hollywood. However, edits were essentially permanent. If you cut and cemented
together the wrong frames, some content was going to be lost in trying to
correct matters. News footage was almost always done with direct positive film stock,
as it would have been too time consuming and expensive to develop a negative
and then strike a positive print for editing.
In 1963, videotape was seven years old, but was still very primitive as judged
by later standards. Broadcasters relied on two-inch tape costing hundreds of
dollars for an hour-long reel. The machines that used this medium were equally
large and costly, so they were few and far between.
Videotape editing was even more time consuming, exacting and unforgiving than
film editing, as it required developing the magnetic tracks with a special
solution of suspended iron particles to make them visible to the editor through
a special microscope. This gave the editor an indication of where to physically
cut the tape with a razor blade. As images couldn’t be viewed directly,
frame-accurate cuts were impossible. Also, the editor had to be extremely
careful to make sure that the splices weren’t done mid-field, as the playback video
would roll and the VTR output would be unstable until the servos relocked
ENG 1960s STYLE
Remote video? As stated, the cameras used 50 years ago weren’t shrinking
violets. They required large trucks to haul them and their tube-type support
gear. These vehicles were usually modified buses or heavy-duty “step vans,” certainly
not the lightweight highly mobile ENG vehicles we have today. Just as with the
big field production trucks of today, special arrangements had to made to park
these early news vehicles, and in most cases, off-shore power feeds had to be
secured as extremely large generators would have been needed to support the
load imposed by the vacuum tube gear and the air-conditioning needed to cool
it. Due to their size and associated acquisition and operating expense,
ownership usually was limited to larger stations, and it was rare stations to
have more than one such remote vehicle.
Connectivity from the field was also an issue. If you were fortunate to be in a
large city, the phone company might have some coax installed in strategic
locations that could be rented for special event coverage. Orders usually had
to be placed well in advance to access these coax lines. Having them patched
through to the station wasn’t cheap. The only other way to get video back to
the studio was via portable microwave links. Again, these were tube-driven and
bulky. Another reason for using modified
buses as remote vehicles was that their roof area could support the heavy
cameras and large tripod-mounted microwave dishes and heads.
While communications satellites did exist in 1963, transponder space was very
limited and so expensive that only the networks could afford it. Portable or
mobile uplinks did not exist.
AT&T had the only game in town when it came to cross-country video/audio
connectivity, and this was limited to larger cities. Capacity also was limited.
In looking back 50 years, it’s somewhat amazing that the New York networks were
able to receive even the limited amount of video from Dallas/Ft. Worth evidenced
in the surviving recordings.
Covering breaking news has always been a challenge for television journalists.
At times, it involves a great deal of ingenuity and determination. This is just
as true now as it was 50 years ago. Despite the occasional fluffs, fumbles and
missed cues, however, the broadcast coverage of the tragic events in Dallas on
Nov. 22, 1963, was riveting and compelling. When you look back at the
limitations of the equipment available for that coverage, it seems rather
miraculous that it could have happened at all, much less have been done as well
as it was.
This coverage continued on into Washington with the arrival of the plane
carrying President Kennedy’s body at Andrews Air Force Base and the Monday
coverage of the funeral procession through Washington, D.C., and on to the
burial ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. The amount of work that went into
setting up camera positions, pulling cables, testing circuits and overall
coordination of this coverage was staggering, especially given the very limited
amount of time for these preparations and the size and limitations of the
television gear and connectivity then available.
I have to wonder if we could have done as well today.