The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debates

Today is the 50th anniversary of the very first televised presidential debate. On Monday, September 26th, 1960 the three television networks broadcast an hour-long debate between Vice President Richard Nixon (Republican) and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy (Democrat), held at WBBM-TV in Chicago. The debate was also heard on a variety of radio networks. Three additional debates followed in October. Read more about the debate here, from the Encyclopedia of Television (1st edition).

The Kennedy Presidential Library and YouTube have put the entire first debate online in its entirity to commemorate the anniversary. All four debates can be viewed online at the Museum of Broadcast Communications (you’ll need a free account and then search for “Kennedy-Nixon Debate”). You can also watch the first debate via Internet Archive:

I’d like to think that all three networks recorded their broadcasts of the debates but I don’t know for sure. Do all three network versions still exist for each debate? I don’t know that either. However, aside from a brief network identification and announcements about program pre-emptions, the broadcasts should be completely identical. The Museum of Broadcast Communications has the CBS broadcasts of the first three debates and the ABC broadcast for the fourth and final debate. UCLA’s Film & Television Archive has the CBS broadcasts of the first three debate while the Paley Center for Media has all four CBS broadcasts of the debates. The Library of Congress likely has copies as well but I wasn’t able to find them using a quick search.

The version of the first debate available at YouTube appears to have slightly better video quality than the Museum of Broadcast Communications version, which has better audio quality. The YouTube version runs 58:34 while the Museum of Broadcast Communications versions run 59:03. The YouTube version does not include a CBS announcement that The Andy Griffith Show and Hennesey won’t be seen (but will return the following week) while the Museum of Broadcast Communications version does. The Internet Archive version seems to be identical to the YouTube version.

All of the existing copies are either 16mm kinescopes or videotape of some sort (the Museum of Broadcast Communications versions are said to be U-Matic tape. Portions of the four debates have been released on VHS/DVD but I do not believe all four have ever been made available commercially. I am not aware of any restoration attempts to make existing copies look better. Who owns the copyright to presidential debates? Who would foot the bill for restoring them?

5 Comments

  • Gary says:

    It IS surprising (or is it?) that no restoration work seems to have been done on these historic broadcasts…

    Regarding the anniversary, here’s a plug for the Archive of American Television, we’ve creating a page with excerpts from several related interviews (Don Hewitt, Sig Mickelson, Howard K. Smith etc.) regarding the debates, link below:

    http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/kennedy-nixon-debates

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    I recall that, just before the 1976 Presidential debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Channel 13 [WNET] in New York rebroadcast all four of the 1960 debates (via kinescope, I believe).

  • W.B. says:

    It should be noted that back in 1960 in the wake of the first matchup, there was a deep divide between TV viewers and radio listeners as to the debate. People who saw the debate on TV thought that Kennedy won the debate; whereas those who listened on the radio believed Nixon the winner.

  • RGJ says:

    That may not necessarily be true. See this article from The New York Times, written by Ted Sorensen, who helped Kennedy prepare, that discusses six “myths” about the debates.

  • ejp says:

    The NBC copies of the debates only exist as kinescopes, but CBS and ABC still have the original broadcast quality videotape versions.

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