Bookshelf: America’s Long Vigil (TV Guide, 1964)

Bookshelf is a monthly column examining printed matter relating to television. While I love watching TV, I also love reading about it, from tie-in novels to TV Guides, from vintage television magazines to old newspaper articles. Bookshelf is published on the second Thursday of each month.

“America’s Long Vigil”
Special Section, TV Guide Volume 12, Number 4 (Issue #565)
First Published January 1964
Published by TV Guide
27 Pages

I’ve reviewed complete issues of TV Guide in the past, during the first incarnation of Bookshelf. This review is different. It examines a special section of the January 25th, 1964 edition of TV Guide titled “America’s Long Vigil.” It was an attempt to craft a written account of the visual, the four days of television coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination, its aftermath, the murder of his alleged killer, and his funeral.

The intent of “America’s Long Vigil” was, as explained in the “As We See It” editorial at the start of the issue, “to help viewers recall their own reactions as they saw this history [the assassination] being made, and to provide them with a permanent reminder of their television experience.”


Cover, January 25th, 1963 TV Guide – Copyright 1964 Triangle Publications, Inc.

Published only two months after the assassination, “America’s Long Vigil” is remarkable not for its breadth (although at 27 pages, it is incredibly long by TV Guide standards) nor its scope (it is not, as it claims, an actual hour-by-hour account). No, what is so exceptional about this special section is that it was able to be published at all.

Compiling “America’s Long Vigil” must have been an incredible undertaking. Credited to Dwight Whitney and his research assistant Sara Pentz, “America’s Long Vigil” required TV Guide to send reporters and photographers to view hours and hours of videotape from all three networks — heavy, two-inch Quad videotape on massive video tape recorders — and pour through official broadcast logs, hundreds of photographs and other documentation.


January 25th, 1963 TV Guide, Pages 20 & 21 – Copyright 1964 Triangle Publications, Inc.

The special section begins on Page 19 with a statement from President Lyndon B. Johnson:

Television’s remarkable performance in communicating news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the events that followed was a source of sober satisfaction to all Americans.

It acted swiftly. It acted surely. It acted intelligently and impeccable taste.

On that unforgettable weekend in November, 1963, television provided a personal experience which all could share, a vast religious service which all could attend, a unifying bond which all could feel.

I take this opportunity to add my voice to those who already have recognized television’s historic contribution.

This is followed on Page 20 with an three-page introduction that places the four days of television coverage in a historical context, noting that while most people in big cities knew of President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, there were those in more rural areas who didn’t hear the news for days. There was no chance of that with Kennedy’s assassination. Television spread the news instantly across the country within minutes and for the next four days “the American people were virtual prisoners of an electronic box.”

From the introduction:

Thus what happened on the television screen became in every sense an epic drama four days long, in which the viewers were not so much spectators as participants. The insistent commercial, the thin, strident melodrama and the pleasantly foolish prattle of the quiz game had suddenly been stilled, as a blizzard stills the clamor of the bi city. No pat endings here. In their place came the endless images of human frailty, dignity and grace, until it seemed the spirit could absorb no more.

After an interruption for the programming pages, the “permanent record” begins. It is a day-by-day account rather than hour-by-hour look back ta those four fateful days in November, starting with Walter Cronkite’s initial bulletin breaking into As the World Turns at 1:30PM Eastern on Friday, November 22nd and ending somewhat vaguely four days later on Monday, November 25th following Kennedy’s funeral.

Some exact times are given for each day, allowing for a rough chronology to unfold. At 2:32PM on Friday, two priests say Kennedy is dead. At 2:38PM, Cronkite’s historic announcement confirming the President’s death. At 7:30PM, viewers got their first good look at Lee Harvey Oswald.


January 25th, 1963 TV Guide, Pages 36 & 37- Copyright 1964 Triangle Publications, Inc.

There are photographs, too. Both large and small. Dozens of black-and-white photographs taken from the network videotapes. The first CBS bulletin. NBC’s David Brinkley describing President Johnson’s swearing in. A police officer holding up Oswald’s rifle. Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby. John-John’s famous salute. The White House flag at half-mast.

Here’s the final paragraph:

For if nothing else had happened during the Four Days, the medium had gained a new sense of what it could do, if pressed. Moreover, it had shown that it did indeed deserve to be called, as Ron Cochran had put it, the window of the world. And that the window was capable of encompassing not just life’s trivia, but the deepest of human experience.

As someone who wasn’t alive when President Kennedy was assassination, who didn’t watch the coverage unfold in November 1963, “America’s Long Vigil” does an incredible job describing what took place on television over those four days. On the cover, TV Guide declared it “a special section you will want to keep.” I am sure tens of thousands of people did.


7 Comments

  • David says:

    I have this issue of “TV Guide.” I was only 15 months old in November 1963, but my parents kept this issue, which is now in my possession.

    • Mitchell H says:

      My situation as well, David. I was 3 at the time, and my mother kept that issue, along with the “Extra” of that afternoon’s Minneapolis Star, and bought several books on the assassination and its aftermath – “Death of a President” by Manchester, “Kennedy” by Sorenson, and “A Thousand Days” by Schlessinger. She wasn’t a Democrat, nor a particular fan of JFK, but she well understood the historical significance of what had happened, and thought I would and should be interested in it when I got old enough to understand. And she was right.

      • David says:

        Mitchell, we have a lot in common on this! My mother kept the front section of the Dayton Journal-Herald from the morning of November 23, 1963. My grandmother bought a couple books, including “Four Days,” which was compiled by UPI and the American Heritage Magazine. She included inscriptions to me in the front of them, saying how the entire world was shocked and saddened by this.

  • Ken Douglas says:

    Sadly, i do not have this one. I was born almost a full month after the tragic event. I came into the world on December 20, 1963. I was born at night, IDK the exact time. But i’m sure that the folks in my home town of Sioux Falls, SD were also galvanized by those events. A lot of sets were probably tuned to the CBS station there, KELO-TV channel 11. Others to the NBC and ABC outlets (KSOO-TV channel 13 and KORN-TV channel 5, headquartered in Mitchell). Channels 13 and 5 have changed nets and calls (KSFY is with ABC and KDLT with the peacock).
    On the 50th anniversary of that fateful day (November 22, 2013), i used YouTube as my way-back machine. At precisely 12:30 PM, i tuned up the 11/22/1963 episode of As the World Turns with the original ad breaks and first bulletins. I had hoped to trace CBS’ entire coverage down to the fore-but got sidetracked and clicked on whet i thought was the next right video. It wasn’t, and my odyssey ended right there.
    Interestingly enough, when Walter Cronkite broke in with those early reports, there were no cameras on him. It took what seemed like forever to get a cam warmed up. But finally, when the entire CBS network joined the broadcast at 1 PM Central time, they had a camera ready to go, and the coverage began in earnest.
    Over at NBC, they were probably showing the game show Let’s Make a Deal with Monty Hall, when announcer Don Pardo broke in with those first reports of JFK being shot.
    And ABC was right in the middle of a Father Knows Best rerun when they broke in with that first report.
    Meanwhile in Dallas, where the shooting took place, the stations were all on local programming. KRLD-TV channel 4 (now KDFW) and WBAP-TV channel 5 (now known as KXAS) broke into their programs with the first news.
    WFAA-TV channel 8 was in the middle of a local program, The Julie Bennell Show, when suddenly, around 12:46 PM, Jay Watson, the station’s program director, went on the air with the exact same news that was breaking all around the country. He was one of the witnesses to the eventual assassination of President Kennedy, as were the people he interviewed that day.
    Back on Monday, September 2nd of that year, which was Labor Day, The CBS Evening News expanded to 30 minutes, and included a Cronkite interview with JFK. A good portion of that newscast, along with two commercials that aired during it, was posted on YT from a 1992 episode of the network’s late-night broadcast, “Up to the Minute”. It was recently deleted from the site. Another post still does exist.
    I look forward to seeing more old TV Guide listings in the future. When they became a national magazine, in September 2005, i felt as though TVG, as i knew it, died. It’s wonderful to go back in time to those halcyon days of a once great television magazine.

    • Jon says:

      These are great details both by Robert & Ken. CBS was the only network running original programming at 1:30 PM EST, as LET’S MAKE A DEAL didn’t premiere on NBC until Dec. 30 that year. I believe that KRLD-TV in Dallas was airing AS THE WORLD TURNS from CBS at the exact time of the assassination, but I’ll have to check that later.

  • Jon says:

    The Lincoln assassination happened in 1865, not 1863.
    Long before I had a copy of this issue of TV GUIDE, I read this article in my softcover copy of the book TV GUIDE THE FIRST 25 YEARS, which reprinted several listings & articles from the first 25 years of the magazine and included a center color section of what it considered the best covers from those same years, though I disagreed with several of its selections there. The book stated that the pictures in the magazine article had been taken from television, so in most cases substitutions for these photos had to be made.

    • Robert says:

      I dug out my copy of this issue just in case TV Guide had mistakenly said Lincoln was assassinated in 1863 rather than 1865. Sadly, the error was all mine. Yikes. Thanks for the correction.

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