TV Coverage of the Kennedy Assassination

Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV used this mobile unit to cover the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. The camera atop the bus appears to be a Marconi Mark IV, which used a 4.5-inch image orthicon pickup tube. The hearse carries JFK’s body from Parkland hospital to transport back to Washington, D.C.

ALEXANDRIA, VA. — Used 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 granted.

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 air.

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.


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 pullers.”

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 television.

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.

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 again.

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.

James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others.  He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.