EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY

U.S. News Program

CBS News conceived Eyewitness to History to cover U.S. presidential diplomacy and the Soviet Union during the last five months of 1959. Before the series settled into its Friday 10:30 to 11:00 P.M. period in September 1960, 16 of 28 programs were brought to the public before 8:30 P.M., with only two breaking from coverage of President Eisenhower, Premier Khrushchev, President De Gaulle, and the summits in Paris. In September 1961 the series returned as Eyewitness, with the narrow, original focus gone, but the same need to cover late breaking national and international news. For four seasons Eyewitness to History stood as the center of growth at CBS News, and made a thirty-minute daily news program feasible in the eyes of network executives.

In the Spring of 1963, Eyewitness was canceled after the news division was given permission for a thirty-minute nightly newscast. It was canceled not just to return time to the network schedule, but to shift Executive Producer Leslie Midgley and many of his producers to work on the CBS Evening News, assisting Don Hewitt, Executive Producer of the new program.

Midgley took pride in airing on Friday with stories that would appear in the national news magazines on Monday. The series pioneered construction of a program with combinations of live telecast, videotape, and film, and broke through many self-imposed limitations of news reporting. For the first time video cameras were shipped and used overseas, covering President Eisenhower. Unfortunately, the bulky nature of these cameras, difficult to move once optimally positioned, posed problems when crowds did not cooperate. In the United States video cameras were used extensively to cover Khrushchev's visit in 1959, but use of cameras in crowds again disrupted coverage on such historic programs as "Khrushchev on the Farm." The series also struggled with the early uses of two-inch videotape. The tape was fed to New York with specific time cues signaling when to start and stop. Unable at that time to edit two-inch tape electronically, film editors would actually cut two-inch tape, compiling the necessary sections. Initially, according to the producers, what made the series as historic as the events themselves was the use of a jet airplane to ship back tape and film of Eisenhower in Italy, India, Brazil, West Germany, England, Paris, Iran, Greece, Japan and Paris.

As the series pushed for coverage of events with multi-dimensional background stories, the production crew developed appropriate strategies. Editors cut negative film and projected it directly over the air by reversing the polarity in the control room. Certain stories aired only because the unit employed a two-projector system, switching between one projector, the studio camera, the other projector, and, sometimes, the video projector. Realizing the historical value of the two-inch tape, Midgley asked Sig Mickelson, CBS News President, to start a tape archive. He refused, preferring to reuse the tape--and part of the video record of significant historical, social, and cultural events was lost.

In the second season the series quickly gained a reputation for changing the announced topic, sometimes as late as Friday morning. Midgley began to send "field producers," a term that included unit members with other official titles, to different locations, sometimes holding open the possibility of any one of five stories. The series production relied heavily on news judgments of the field producers, who included Bernie Birnbaum, Russ Bensley, John Sharnick, Av Westin, and Philip Scheffler, individuals who would go on to major roles in the television news industry. Their decisions led to crucial alterations in plans and schedules. Twice, for example, in the second season, last minute developments growing out of tension over school integration in New Orleans were given precedence over already developing stories. Similarly, when the production unit was taping John F. Kennedy's announcement and introduction of Cabinet appointments on the day two jet airliners crashed over New York City, Midgley decided to cover the crash. The resulting journalism illustrated the production unit's expert response to such events--they were faster than units in news divisions in New York. Even late breaking international stories received the unit's attention. They covered Yuri Gagarin orbiting the earth, causing cancellation of two shows on the Eichmann trial in Israel, and another on the events surrounding the Bay of Pigs and the return of prisoners. When anti-government factions seized the cruise ship Santa Maria off the coast of Brazil, Charles Kuralt was dispatched on another ship to intercept and film the incident, providing coverage for two weeks. If events surrounding a story halted, as they did during negotiations with the hijackers of Santa Maria, or if two events were simultaneously breaking, the series sometimes aired two fifteen-minute segments. After the second year, the CBS Television Network illustrated to potential advertisers the timeliness of the program by citing listings of the stories the series was preparing to cover.

Although the title changed, Eyewitness remained committed to covering presidential trips and diplomacy, keeping the production unit on tight deadlines according to the president's schedule. Certain shows, such as "Spring Arrives in Paris" and "The Big Ski Boom," were prepared over a two or three week period and were aired based on the happenstance of events unfolding and the logistics needed to cover the president. After the title change, coverage of diplomacy changed only slightly by placing the flow of events in something of a larger context, such as "Enroute to Vienna," and "The President in Mexico". But this shift was made possible by the developing expertise of the unit.

 

During the first year, Eyewitness to History highlighted corespondents Robert Pierpoint, Alexander Kendrik, Robert Trout, David Schoenbrun, Lou Cioffi, Ernest Leiser, and, especially Charles Collingwood, assigned to accompany the president. With Walter Cronkite as anchor in New York, two or three additional correspondents appeared in programs, from Washington D.C., and different parts of the world according to an event's implications. This structure remained constant throughout the series for coverage of presidential trips as well as for international incidents such as "The Showdown in Laos" and "India at War." Midgley utilized CBS reporters around the world, even those assigned to the CBS Evening News, setting the stage for the series' own cancellation, and the unit's re-assignment as a support mechanism for Walter Cronkite's thirty-minute broadcast.

Network politics at this time occasioned a period of instability with regard to the anchor seat. Charles Kuralt was named anchor for the second season of Eyewitness to History. Midgley and others inside CBS perceived Kuralt as following in the footsteps of Edward R. Murrow. But James Aubrey, President, CBS Television, disliked Kuralt's on camera appearance, and convinced Midgley to return Cronkite as anchor in January 1961. Cronkite's role as New York correspondent provided a scope of credibility absent from his other projects. When Cronkite went to the CBS Evening News on 16 April 1962, Charles Collingwood became anchor of Eyewitness.

At the series start, a critical dimension was added to the objective task of presenting news with Howard K. Smith's commentary on programs focused on diplomacy. In covering certain issues the distinct perspectives and arguments between producer and reporter became evident, as in the case of "Diem's War--Or Ours," and other reports on Vietnam.

Critics and the public were engaged by the urgency and depth Eyewitness brought to contemporary issues. Even when considering the new trend in jazz music, Bossa Nova, the producers presented a "critical look" at jazz. Even so the announcement of the program "Who Killed Marilyn Monroe" brought such an outcry from Hollywood, that Midgley changed it to "Marilyn Monroe, Why?"

For three years Eyewitness to History aggressively pursued such events as changes in the labor movement, government fiscal policy, the medical establishment and U.S. foreign relations. It was the training and proving ground for television journalists whose careers span most of the second half of the century they covered. And the series signaled CBS's turn to prominence in network television journalism.

-Richard Bartone

ANCHOR

Charles Kuralt                                           1960-1961 Walter Cronkite                                         1961-1962 Charles Collingwood                                  1962-1963

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBS
August 1959-December 1959       Irregular Schedule of                                                         Specials September                                       Friday 9:00-9:30 September 1960-June 1961            Friday 10:30-11:00 September 1961-August 1963         Friday 10:30-11:00

FURTHER READING

Adams, Val. "Exchange Visits Get TV Sponsor." The New York Times, 2 August 1959.

"Cronkite and Midgley: 'I Love Luce-id.'" Variety (Los Angeles), 3 January 1962.

Crosby, John. "The Journey." New York Herald Tribune, 23 December 1959.

Delatiner, Barbara. "CBS Had a Full Roster of Marilyn Experts." Newsday (Hempstead, New York), 13 August 1962.

Gates, Gary Paul. Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Guidry, Frederick. "Video Turns to Current History: Eyewitness--Foot Loose Scribe." Christian Science Monitor (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 October 1960.

Midgley, Leslie. How Many Words Do You Want? New York: Birch Lane, 1989.

"Midgley's 'Take 5, Use 1.'" Variety (Los Angeles), 5 April 1961.

Ranson, Jo. "Eyewitness to History to Get Shorter Title in Fall." Radio TV Daily (New York), 1 May 1961.

Schoenbrun, David. On and Off the Air: An Informal History of CBS News. New York: Dutton, 1989.

"The Speed Up in Television News Coverage." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 2 January, 1961.

"Stop the Cameras!" TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 10 November 1962.

Van Horne, Harriet. "Disasters Test TV News." New York Telegram, 20 December 1960.

 

See also Documentary