NEWS, NETWORK

Television news in the United States was born of network radio. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) began network radio service in November 1926 and CBS signed on 25 September 1927. Both networks began broadcast news by focusing on events, matters of public concern such as political conventions, election results and presidential inaugurations, and from this earliest period, broadcast journalism was rooted in various forms of competition.

Early in the history of radio NBC had cornered the best entertainment talent. CBS President William Paley countered by emphasizing news. He guessed, correctly, that listeners would want information. But both networks faced other major competitors, the newspaper publishers, who tried to eradicate news on radio. Indeed, broadcast journalism was truly born of this battle. The "press-radio war" began in 1922 when the Associated Press asked its newspaper members to stop letting radio stations use their stories. Eventually the dispute led to an embargo which broadcasters defeated. Two decades later broadcast news came out of World War II strong, proven under fire by young men and women who risked their lives to record history. By this time the public, the broadcasters--and the newspapers--realized that broadcast news was central to contemporary life. The next step was television.

CBS and NBC licensed commercial TV stations in 1941 and the CBS station in New York City began almost immediately presenting two daily 15-minute news broadcasts on weekdays. Television was ready for its full-scale launch, but the demands of the war kept the new medium at parade rest until 1945.

It was 1947 before the television networks were formed, even though the networks' stations in New York presented some news programming in 1946. NBC launched its network TV news programming with a 10-minute weekday broadcast, The Camel Newsreel Theater in February 1948. John Cameron Swayze, seldom seen on camera, read news copy while film images filled the screen. In August 1948 CBS began The CBS-TV News, a 15-minute program anchored by Douglas Edwards, each weekday evening. NBC expanded its news to 15-minutes in February 1949 when the program became The Camel News Caravan.

ABC Television, which traced its heritage to the forced sale in 1943 of one of NBC's two radio networks, began regular news broadcasts in 1948. A struggling fourth network, DuMont, broadcast news from 1947 to 1949, halted news programming until 1953, then went out of business in 1955.

In this developmental period the growth of network television news was hindered by the decision of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to "freeze" new TV licenses between 1948 and 1952, until it could sort out channel allocations and decide on a standard for color TV. In 1948, at the beginning of the freeze, there were only 34 TV stations broadcasting in 21 cities to about one million TV sets.

Early television news broadcasts were crude, hindered by the lack of technology. Much of the newsfilm came from newsreel companies. Even these companies, long-practiced in producing newsreels for theatrical exhibition, used film cameras designed for the static, slower pace of Hollywood filming. Moreover, there was no adequate recording medium for preserving television pictures other than the fuzzy and inadequate kinescopes.

Still pictures were mounted on easels so that studio cameras could photograph them. Developing film for moving pictures and transporting it to New York usually meant that the film available for newscasts was outdated by the time of broadcast. Other experiments during this period included attempts to syndicate national news programs. For more than twenty years, for example, Paul Harvey prepared a daily national roundup to be inserted into local news programs. But network organizations quickly expanded their scope and influence.

When Don Hewitt, who later developed 60 Minutes, became the regular director of Douglas Edwards with the News, he developed techniques to project slides on a screen behind the news anchor. Still, Edwards' audience ratings lagged behind The Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze until the early 1950s. And in 1956 Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were teamed by NBC to replace Swayze, creating one of the most successful news programs of the time.

By 1951 Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly were producing See It Now on CBS television. The series tackled controversial subjects, including an expose of the histrionic tactics of controversial anti-Communist U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. After receiving the blessing of CBS board chairman William Paley, See It Now broadcast a direct attack on McCarthy on 9 March 1954. The Senator was offered an opportunity to reply, which he accepted. His response was broadcast on 6 April. In some views this response, as much as Murrow's analysis, undermined McCarthy's support. By June, he was mired in the disastrous Army-McCarthy hearings, and in December 1954, he was censured by the U.S. Senate. Three years later, McCarthy was dead--and by 1961 Murrow was pressured out of the news organization he helped create and with which he set standards still used as the hallmarks of television news.

Technology, as much as personality, has played a crucial role in the development of a distinctive form for television news. After early suffering with Hollywood film equipment, TV news organizations converted to 16-mm film. As a result of this new mobility, newsfilm became more interesting and both networks and their affiliates installed their own film developing equipment. "Reversal" film which came out of the processor as a positive print was introduced in 1958, reducing time in film editing and making fresher, timlier stories avialable for broadcast.

Two major remaining roadblocks to making TV news truly current were the lack of fast transportation and the networks' inability to do live coast-to-coast broadcasts. These delays were remedied in 1951, when a coaxial cable link, connecting the West and East coasts, was completed. The cable enabled the electronic, rather than physical, transportion of television news stories.

Another major technological revolution for TV news began when the Ampex Corporation introduced the videotape recorder in 1956. Although these early videotape machines were too large for portable use, it was still possible to record in-studio interviews, and delay the news for West Coast viewers.

By 1960 a gradual shift to color reversal newsfilm had begun. This devlopment followed the implementation and diffusion of color television transmitters and home receiver sets, and added another level of "realism" to television news.

During the same period directors and producers were perfecting their craft, developing techniques to take advantage of television's unique quality of telling stories with pictures. And stories there were. Already, in the 1950s the war in Korea was covered on film which had to be flown to the United States. In 1961 FCC Chairman Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" remarks led to a renewed emphasis on news by the networks, and enhanced news coverage by local television stations. That same year, President John F. Kennedy allowed the networks to broadcast a presidential news conference--live.

The 1960s have been called television's Decade of the Documentary. The civil rights struggle in the south received the skilled attention of some of television's great documentary producers, including Fred Friendly (CBS), John Secondari (ABC), and Robert "Shad" Northshield (NBC). ABC launched the documentary series "Close-up". CBS broadcast "Harvest of Shame," chronicling the life of migrant workers.

Regular daily broadcasts were changing during this period. CBS led the expansion of the evening news to 30 minutes in 1963. NBC's Huntley-Brinkley news quickly followed. ABC, struggling financially and journalistically, waited until 1967.

It took only a few seconds in November 1963, for network television to capture the eyes of an America which witnessed the horror of the events in Dallas, the first Kennedy assassination. All three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, canceled their entertainment schedules. For much of the next four days they provided a stunned and grieving nation with live news reports. Prompt coverage of overwhelming news stories became a trademark of network news. "Live" became a defining word, indicating the powerful advantage television news was developing over print media.

The networks got the chance to demonstrate the power of "live" coverage many times. In 1968, they presented two more tragic assassinations--of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis and Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. In l97l, the March on Washington by 13,000 anti-war protesters was seen by the nation. In l974 President Richard Nixon resigned following extensive Congressional Hearings into the Watergate Affair, hearings presented live on television.

All these events were broadcast in the context of one of television's longest running news stories. Many call the Vietnam War the "television war". It was the first time that television news was able to cover a war, relatively unfettered by military control. The time gap between the occurrence of the news and the news broadcast was closing. Film was still the medium used to acquire pictures, but once developed, the film could be relayed by fast aircraft to the nearest television cable terminus to be fed to the network.

Correspondents had more freedom of movement in Vietnam. They went on patrol with the teenage draftees who had been thrown in to fight North Vietnam's tough, tenacious regular army, and the equally dangerous guerrilla Viet Cong. The story became less and less pleasant. When word came of the U.S. Tet offensive in 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite flew to Vietnam. He ended up in the midst of street fighting, steel pot helmet on his head, talking with young marines trying to win the city of Hue back from the Communists. Cronkite returned to New York, and in a rare commentary, told his audience the U.S. must negotiate an end to the war, not as the victor, but as "honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could."

One month later, President Lyndon Johnson called for peace talks. Then the president announced that he would not run for reelection.

Another story offered television a far more convential narrative, one of trial, contest, and triumph. The exploration of space was television's story. The belch of flame and smoke as the giant rockets launched astronauts on their orbitailing tours, live television pictures of men working in space, and finally, on 20 July 1969, live pictures of men walking on the moon. But the triumphant video of men on the moon was replaced on 28 January 1986, when the spaceship Challenger exploded.

The telling of these compelling stories continued to improve, aided by better cameras and more dramatic color. Film disappeared almost overnight as videotape became the medium for hard news coverage. Sony introduced 3/4 inch wide videotape cassettes to the consumer market in 1968, but the quality of the tape was not up to the standards the government imposed on broadcasters. Introduction of the digital time base corrector in 1972 allowed broadcasters to improve the quality of 3/4 inch tape.

By the mid-1970s the networks were rapidly converting to tape as the medium for acquiring news pictures. Tape was closing the gap between the time a story was shot and when it could be shown on the air. No more delay for film processing. Tape was ready, once shot, for editing and playback.

The switch to videotaping of events began a true technological revolution for TV news. Lightweight microwave electronics were installed in small vans, which were equipped with telescoping masts. Stories could be videotaped and relayed back the newsroom or broadcast live. Yet another technological development, the successful launch and application of domestic and foreign satellite channels, had become taken place during the 1970s. The satellites made it possible to receive prompt, if not live, feeds from around the world and across the nation.

Television news was increasingly becoming a "now" medium. By the early 1980s, the networks added mobile satellite uplinking vehicles to their tool kit. Major breaking stories around the world were being covered live, transmitted to network headquarters for immediate viewing.

At the same time the combined efforts of scenic designers, lighting experts, producers and engineers were shaping a distinctive "look" for TV news. Rear screen pictures were replaced by still and moving video inserted into the picture so that it appeared to be behind the anchor desk. Slides and still pictures were stored on videotape and optical disks, so they could be recalled to illustrate news stories. A whole new art form--news graphics--developed, requiring the skills of computer artists. Those same computers added sparkle to broadcasts, creating "page turning" effects, and promotional "bumpers" between segments of the broadcasts.

 

The faces presenting the news changed. John Chancellor had reigned at NBC since 1971. In l982 NBC moved Tom Brokaw from the successful morning program Today to the anchor desk of the NBC Nightly News, at first teamed with Roger Mudd, and a year later, solo.

Walter Cronkite took over the anchor slot of CBS's Evening News in 1962 and for 19 years he was the man to beat in the race for ratings. After years of palace intrigue, Dan Rather bested Roger Mudd for Cronkite's position in 1981. A decade later, and under fire from every direction, CBS News added Connie Chung to the Evening News anchor desk.

ABC News struggled to prove itself against its wealthy opponents. The perennially third-place network tried a succession of anchors, including network television's only tri-anchor combination. Peter Jennings finally took the post in l983, his second time occupying ABC's anchor chair. Network news, in the traditional sense, peaked in the early 1980s. Technology continued to improve, making the network news departments faster at delivering stories. But circumstances beyond their control were reshaping the television business.

Cable television had signed-up more than half of the households in America. Increasingly, viewers found fewer distinctions between the cable feeds and the traditional networks. Entrepreneur Ted Turner planted the seeds for a significant weakening of the traditional network news departments when he founded the Cable News Network in 1980. CNN was not a major competitor during the early and mid-1980s, but the network, staffed by young people and led by network veterans, was on the air 24 hours a day. CNN used satellite technology to cover major stories from hostage standoffs to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Coverage was live, hour after hour, while the Big Three dipped in and out of regular programming. CNN's on-scene open eye, became the channel to seek when significant news broke.

The proliferation of channels, in cable and independent local stations, had a major impact on the networks. ABC, CBS and NBC all changed owners. In 1985, Capital Cities Communications, a little-know media company, put together a deal with Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Corporation to buy ABC. Laurence Tisch, who had already invested heavily in CBS, took over as chief executive officer in 1986. The RCA Corporation was sold to General Electric in 1985, giving GE control of NBC.

The new corporate leaders found their properties losing audience and revenue to cable networks. Round after round of budget cutting and layoffs followed. Audience decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought about radical restructuring of the network news departments. They became leaner, depending more on contributions from affiliates, cost-sharing through pooling of coverage and exchange agreements with other major broadcasters. The networks also placed greater dependence on news agencies for foreign video coverage.

New strategies developed. The news departments became profit centers, producing moderately rated prime time programs which were profitable because they were relatively inexpensive to produce. The big-three expanded their news offerings, moving into late evening, then overnight, early mornings, and weekend mornings, building on the strengths of their morning news and information programs.

Corporate heads realized their news departments were vast storehouses of knowledge. They packaged archival material for resale. New alliances were struck. NBC invested in direct satellite broadcasting in Europe and Asia and developed cable networks in the United States. ABC already owned a good portion of the popular ESPN sports network, and invested in other cable, programming, and interactive media ventures. CBS sold off acquisitions.

Against a background of internal disruption, the three broadcast network news departments and CNN brought the Gulf War into American households, covered the sensational murder trial of athlete O.J. Simpson, and chronicled the destruction of a major federal office building in Oklahoma City.

The three major network news organizations, with CNN, continue to hold a position of extraordinary prominence in the public life of the United States. Though beset by financial retrenchment and often criticized for an apparent emphasis on celebrity and personality "performer-journalists," they provide a significant and continuing flow of information to a huge viewing audience. That information is, for the most part, a view from the center, from the mainstream. Rarely critical of major institutions, the news organizations nevertheless present controversy and conflict from within their own safe boundaries. Their version of the journalist as monitor of public life may not meet the standards of those wishing for more fundamental critique of the structures and institutions of American life--or life in any other society--but they remain the site of one form of accepted public discussion. It is almost impossible now to imagine that life, or that discussion, without television's version of "the news."

-Phillip Kierstead

FURTHER READING

Auletta, Ken. Three Blind Mice: How the Networks Lost Their Way. New York: Random House, 1991.

Barnouw, Erik. The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States. Vol. 2, 1933-53. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

_____ . The Image Empire: A History of Broadcasting in the United States. Vol. 3, 1953--. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

_____ . Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Benjamin, Burton. The CBS Benjamin Report: CBS Reports "The Uncounted Enemy: a Vietnam Deception": an Examination. Washington, D.C.: Media Institute, 1984.

_____ . Fair Play: CBS, General Westmoreland, and How a Television Documentary Went Wrong. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Bliss, Edward, Jr. Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Boyer, Peter J. Who Killed CBS? The Undoing of America's Number One News Network. New York: Random House. 1988.

Broadcasting Magazine. The First Fifty Years of Broadcasting: The Running Story of the Fifth Estate. Washington, D.C.: Broadcasting Publications, 1982.

Cohen, Akiba A. Social Conflict and Television News. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1990.

Collins, Richard. Television News. London: British Film Institute, 1976.

Dennis, Everette E. "New News Technology: Death Knell or Challenge?" (Special Issue: Television Journalism). Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1990.

Diamond, Edwin. The Tin Kazoo: Politics, Television, and the News. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1975.

Epstein, Edward Jay. News From Nowhere: Television and the News. New York: Random House, 1974.

Foote, Joe S. "Television News: Past, Present and Future." Mass Comm Review (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Winter-Spring 1992.

Frank, Reuven. Out of Thin Air: The Brief Wonderful Life of Network News. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1991.

Goldberg, Robert, and Gerald Jay Goldberg. Anchors: Brokaw, Jennings, Rather and the Evening News. New York: Birch Lane Press. 1990.

Goldman, Robert. Mapping Hegemony: Television News Coverage of Industrial Conflict. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex 1991.

Head, Sydney W., Christopher Sterling, and Roger D. Wimmer. Broadcasting in America: A Survey of Television, Radio and New Technologies. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1956; 6th edition, 1990.

Henningham, John. Looking at Television News. Melbourne, Australia: Longman Cheshire, 1988.

Hershman, Robert. A Singular Power: An Essay on American Television News, With Comparative Views from France. New York: French American Foundation: Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, 1982.

Hosley, David H., and Gayle K. Yamada. Hard News: Women in Broadcast Journalism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, l987.

Inglis, Andrew F. Behind the Tube: A History of Broadcasting Technology and Business. Boston, Massachusetts: Focal, 1990.

Jensen, Klaus Bruhn. "The Politics of Polysemy: Television News, Everyday Consciousness and Political Action." Media, Culture & Society (London), January 1990.

Keirstead, Phillip, and Sonia-Kay Keirstead. The World of Telecommunication: Introduction to Broadcasting, Cable, and New Technologies. Boston, Massachusetts: Focal, 1990.

Leonard, Bill. In the Storm of the Eye: A Lifetime at CBS. New York: Putnam's, 1987.

Lichty, Lawrence W., and Malachi Topping, compilers. American Broadcasting: A Source Book on the History of Radio and Television. New York: Hastings House, 1975.

Metz, Robert. CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. New York: Signet, 1976.

Nimmo, Dan D. Nightly Horrors: Crisis Coverage by Television Network News. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.

Paley, William. As It Happened: A Memoir. New York: Doubleday, 1979.

Paper, Lewis J. Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Persico, Joseph E. Edward R. Murrow: An American Original. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Qunilan, Sterling. Inside ABC. New York: Hastings House, 1979.

Reese, Stephen D. "The Structure of News Sources on Television: A Network Analysis of 'CBS News,' 'Nightline,' 'MacNeil/Lehrer,' and 'This Week with David Brinkley.'" Journal of Communication (New York), Spring 1994.

Reeves, Jimmie Lynn, and Richard Campbell. Cracked Coverage: Television News, The Anti-cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994.

Schlesinger, Philip. Putting "Reality" Together: BBC News. London: Constable, 1978.

Small, William. "Special Issue: Television Journalism." Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1990.

Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory: William S. Paley the Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Stephens, Mitchell. A History of News: From the Drum to the Satellite. New York: Viking, 1988.

Sterling, Christopher H., and John M. Kitross. Stay Tuned: A Concise History of American Broadcasting. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1978; 2nd edition, 1990.

Whittemore, Hank. CNN: The Inside Story. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1990.

 

See also Australian Programming; Brinkley, David; British Programming; Canadian Programming in English; Brokaw, Tom; Cable News Network; Chung, Connie; Craft, Christine; Cronkite, Walter; Documentary; Huntley, Chet; Kuralt, Charles; Murrow, Edward R.; News, Local and Regional; Programming; Reality Programming; Sevareid, Eric; Smith, Howard K.; Walters, Barbara