Some Notes on TV’s Response to Kennedy Assassination

There was a lot of interest here at Television Obscurities surrounding the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy a few weeks ago. Much of it had to do with CBSNews.com’s real-time video stream of the 1963 CBS News coverage of the assassination, its aftermath and Kennedy’s funeral. I watched about the first 90 minutes of the coverage and was tweeting my thoughts while reading tweets from hundreds of other people.

I also put together a four-part special feature called What American Didn’t Watch:

What America Didn’t Watch – Friday, November 22nd, 1963
What America Didn’t Watch – Saturday, November 23rd, 1963
What America Didn’t Watch – Sunday, November 24th, 1963
What America Didn’t Watch – Monday, November 25th, 1963

In these posts, I examine the prime time network programming pre-empted by coverage of the assassination.

There are a few interesting things relating to television’s response to the Kennedy assassination that I want to discuss briefly. I had hoped to post this early last week but the Thanksgiving holiday got in the way.

Independent Stations Helped By Networks

According to Broadcasting, “virtually all unaffiliated television stations” in the country were allowed to tap into network feeds over the course of the four days of coverage, at no cost. ABC fed WNEW-TV, WTTG, KTTV and WGN-TV; CBS fed WOR-TV, WPIX, WNDT, KPHO-TV and KPLR-TV; NBC fed some 60 stations, including some in Canada [1].

The ABC, CBS, NBC and Mutual radio networks also serviced hundreds of unaffiliated radio stations nation-wide.

Film of Assassination Broadcast on November 26th

The famous Zapruder film that captured President Kennedy being shot was not seen on network television until March 6th, 1975 when it was aired on ABC’s late-night news magazine Good Night America, hosted by Geraldo Rivera.

A different film, this one taken by Marie Muchmore, was broadcast on WNEW-TV in New York City on Tuesday, November 26th, only four days after the assassination.

According to Broadcasting, United Press International Newsfilm sold the 8mm footage, blown up to 16mm for broadcast, to WNEW-TV and also provided copies to subscribers around the world [2].

Advertisement from Broadcasting magazine
UPI’s Full-Page Ad – December 2nd, 1963
Copyright © Broadcasting Publications Inc., 1963 [1]

UPI took out a rather distasteful full-page advertisement in Broadcasting, declaring that it had exclusively provided the first film showing the president’s assassination.

Nearly 200,000 Commercials Weren’t Aired

According to the December 9th issue of Broadcasting magazine, an estimated 198,000 national spot and local television commercials weren’t aired during the three-and-a-half days television was focusing on President Kennedy’s assassination [3].

Industry monitoring group Broadcast Advertisers Reports came up with that number by counting the number of commercials aired by 238 stations in the top 75 markets during the same period the week before and projecting the totals for all stations.

The networks reportedly pre-empted some 970 commercials, which Broadcasting suggested were equal to 72,600 “station exposures” resulting in a grand total of 270,600 commercials not aired.

A Few Commercials Were Aired

The networks and the vast majority of television stations refrained from airing any commercials during the three-and-a-half days of news coverage. The National Association of Broadcasters released the following statement on Friday:

In response to inquiries as to how stations should program, we recommend that for the next 24 hours commercial content should be limited to briefest sponsor identification, with no commercial messages as such. Beyond this period we suggest that station management use its own good judgement. [4].

This was followed by a second statement:

In response to further requests re commercial practice, believe continuation of noncommercial policies throughout Monday, a national day of mourning, is reasonable. [5]

A few stations didn’t heed the recommendation. Broadcasting reported that perhaps 1% of all radio and television stations in the country did air some commercials. Unidentified stations in California, Louisiana, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia and Texas were all said to have shown commercials during the period [6].

The New York Times identified ABC affiliate KTBS-TV in Shreveport, LA as one station that aired commercials. A station spokesman explained that when network coverage became “repetitious,” the station began airing children’s and family appropriate programs as well as motion pictures, with limited commercials as well. There were initially complaints from viewers but later approval [7].

Some Viewers Not Happy About Missing Favorite Shows

Although most reaction to the television coverage of the assassination, its aftermath and President Kennedy’s funeral by the general public, media critics, politicians and others was incredibly positive, there were some viewers who weren’t pleased that their favorite shows were pre-empted in favor of continuing coverage.

According to The New York Times, the networks all received calls on Saturday, November 23rd from viewers asking when regular programming would return. ABC said it got “many compliments and only a few complaints” while CBS received “many” calls, some from viewers upset that “their favorite shows had been canceled.” NBC was said to have received some 200 calls, half of which were complaints [8].

Broadcasting noted that network officials could offer only the death of President Roosevelt in 1945 as a comparison for the amount of public response they received. Each of the networks reported more than 5,000 letters, telegrams and phone calls, the vast majority of which praised the television coverage. Any protests were “buried in the avalanche of favorable mail” [9].

Works Cited:

1 “Network feeds picked up by hundreds of indies.” Broadcasting. 2 Dec. 1963: 54.
2 “A World Listened and Watched.” Broadcasting. 2 Dec. 1963: 37.
3 “Closed Circuit.” Broadcasting. 9 Dec. 1963: 5.
4 “The Cost in Spot Revenue.” Broadcasting. 2 Dec. 1963: 61.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Gould, Jack. “Government Praises Networks For TV Coverage of Tragedy.” New York Times. 27 Nov. 1963: 75.
8 Adams, Val. “TV Will Continue A Sober Approach.” New York Times. 24 Nov. 1963: 9.
9 Networks praised by a grateful public.” Broadcasting. 9 Dec. 1963: 71.

Image Credits:

1 [Advertisement]. Broadcasting. 2 Dec. 1963: 69.

3 Comments

  • Jim says:

    Hi…Were you able to tape any of the JFK Footage that was streamed that week?…Jim

  • Kevin says:

    Always interesting to hear those aspects of the TV coverage in 1963.

    On Saturday Nov.23, 1963, not only was the college footbal game between the Oklahoma Sooners at the Nebraska Cornhuskers not cancelled, WHAS-TV Omaha , an NBC affiliate, interrupted the network’s coverage to carry the football game in that area. A B&W kinescope of this local broadcast survives. There no mention at anytime by the TV announcers about President Kennedy. Not even a “following the game, we’ll be returning to NBC , etc”
    At the end of the game, there’s a camera angle from the press box that shows the American flag above the end zone to screen left . The TV camera angle is such that the upper portion of the flag pole is not visible, just the flag itself, so the flag does not appear to be flying at half-mast. Very strange to see this
    “business as usual” tone considering the circumstances of that weekend.

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