Constitution Daily

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Real-time broadcast shows how JFK’s death changed television

November 22, 2013 by Scott Bomboy


CBS will have a real-time replay of its 1963 coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination on its website on Friday, as an eerie reminder of how the event altered the landscape of mass media.

Walter Cronkite Source: CBS News

News of Kennedy’s shooting spread quickly on November 22, 1963, on local Dallas radio and TV stations, and quickly on national TV and radio.

There is a lot of archival radio and TV coverage on the Internet already, including highlights of CBS coverage and the famous moment when Walter Cronkite read an official newswire bulletin that confirmed Kennedy’s death.

But the CBS project will show four days of TV footage in real-time on, starting around 1:30 p.m. ET on Friday.

The first clips will show how the network interrupted a soap opera, “As The World Turns,” with a bulletin that Kennedy had been shot.

The ensuing four days of coverage included the live murder of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on national TV, and a funeral that was watched on live television by an incredible 93 percent of all Americans.

The early parts of the CBS replay will show the problems that TV networks had with technology, and also show that CBS was airing unconfirmed reports of Kennedy’s death (including one from a young Dan Rather) before the moment that Cronkite read the newswire bulletin on TV.

One unique factor was the scope of the story, which the television news business hadn’t planned for. Most commercials were cancelled during the coverage (an event that wouldn’t happen as extensively again until September 11, 2001).

Within an hour of the news bulletins, about 45 percent of Americans TV sets were already tuned into the news- an event that effectively shifted the focus on extensive news coverage away from radio and newspapers.

If you don’t have time to catch the entire CBS replay, several websites have collections of national and local TV and radio coverage that will give you a sense of what the story was like.

One YouTube channel has clips from WFAA, a Dallas TV station. The current WFAA website will also air a replay of its coverage from 1963 on Friday afternoon for two hours.

YouTubealso has Dallas radio coverage starting about one hour before the assassination, with a breathless reporting breaking into AM radio commercials and pop songs with updates.

Other items, especially in the TV coverage, are unrecognizable to modern viewers. The reporters had close access to Oswald and one asked him a question just before Jack Ruby shot the accused assassin.

The cameras used for live coverage are mammoths, compared to modern technology, and some of the TV newsroom sets seem more like home basements than studios.

Another novelty was one of the first uses of instant replay on television, a technology that was developed for football broadcasts. Instead, it was used to show Oswald’s shooting to viewers who missed it.

Watching the footage also shows a lot of unconfirmed information reported (although duly noted by the media) and some tussles among the media literally fighting for stories.

But the landscape of the media world had changed by November 25, 1963, as Americans now expected the immediacy of breaking news in their homes on television.

The age of video news had begun, and it would play a key part in documenting and communicating the great events of the rest of the decade, such as the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, the 1968 election, and two other assassinations in 1968 that also shook the nation.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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