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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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