December 7th, 2016 Update: Please read my essay “A Forgotten Milestone: Television and Pearl Harbor” for a revised and updated look at how TV covered the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Note: This is an updated version of a post originally written on December 7th, 2008. It examines how television–then in its infancy as a commercial medium–covered the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Today is the 72nd anniversary of that attack.
The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese navy took the United States by surprise on Sunday, December 7th, 1941. It was early morning in Hawaii when the attack began and early afternoon on the East Coast. The television industry was in its infancy, having started commercial broadcasting only six months earlier on July 1st.
There were perhaps two dozen stations in existence and an unknown number of them may have been on the air at the time of the attack or gone on the air abruptly to report that the United States was going to war. In The Magic Window: American Television, 1939-1953, James Von Schilling refers to the televised reports of the attack as “TV’s first bulletin” .
The following accounts, pieced together from a variety of sources, examine how two New York City television stations reported news of the attack.
Of the three television stations operating in New York City in December 1941, NBC’s station was the only one scheduled to be on the air on Sunday, December 7th. There were two programs scheduled:
WNBT’s Schedule for Sunday, December 7th, 1941
3:30-4:30PM – Film: Millionaire Playboy
8:40-11:15PM – Hockey: Rangers vs. Boston, at Madison Square Garden 
The afternoon film was a 1940 RKO comedy called Millionaire Playboy, starring Joe Penner. Reportedly, WNBT’s announcer Ray Forrest broke into the movie with news of the attack on Pearl Harbor . Although the hockey game between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers was played as scheduled, WNBT likely didn’t air it, opting instead to continue reporting news of the attack.
For several months prior to the attack, WNBT broadcast a weekly series called Face of the War with war analyst Sam Cuff. He used maps to describe to viewers the latest events of the war in Europe. But on this day, Cuff showed viewers what was happening in their own country .
WNBT also brought an Associated Press Teletype machine (teleprinter) into its studios and aimed a camera at it, allowing viewers to read the latest reports as they were printed out .
How long the station remained on the air is unknown.
The CBS station in New York City was regularly off the air on Sundays but went on the air to report the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the first time the station had ever broadcast on a Sunday . There are conflicting reports about how long the station was on the air that day.
According to Broadcasting, WCBW broadcast reports of the attack from 8:45PM until after 10PM . Other sources suggest the station was on the air for more than nine hours.
In Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism, Edward Bliss states that WCBW newsreader Richard Hubbell, newswriter Robert Skedgell and program director Gilbert Seldese rushed to the station after learning of the attack. Station president Adrian Murphy called to say the station was going on the air with a special report and to stay on as long as necessary .
According to Skedgell, the station was on the air from 3:30PM until 1:30AM the next morning:
There was not very much hard news that Sunday night, so much of our report was speculative: where the Japanese fleet was, what the Japanese intentions were, where the U.S. fleet had gone, how much damage it had suffered. Of course, the maps were brought out into considerable use, along with our usual graphics, during the long hours.” 
Here’s another description of WCBW’s coverage, published in Television News Reporting (McGraw-Hill, 1958) and written by CBS News Staff:
During that Pearl Harbor telecast, Hubbell showed on maps the location of islands like Wake and Midway, and pointed out the possible lines of attack against the Philippines and Singapore. The viewer saw the positions, at least as they were known on that day, of Unite States Pacific Fleet units.
The program, through diagrams, arrows, and other symbols, defined news in terms of the visual. Expert analyses, again with maps as visual aids, were offered by Major General Fielding Eliot and Fletcher Pratt, while Linton Wells reported the fast-breaking political developments.” 
According to The Columbia History of American Television, WCBW was the only television station in December 1941 that subscribed to the United Press radio wire, suggesting that access to the UP wire gave the station unique information about the attacks. .
Finally, in Stay Tuned: A History of American Television, Sterling and Kittross write that “WCBW produced a 90-minute documentary on the Pearl Harbor attack, only hours after it happened” . Was this documentary part of the nine-hour broadcast?
According to her biography at the Paley Center for Media’s “She Made It” website, Frances Buss, who served as scorekeeper for CBS Television Quiz, helped out during WCBW’s broadcast that afternoon.
The third television station operating in New York City in December 1941 was DuMont’s experimental W2XWV. Although not scheduled to be broadcasting on December 7th, it is possible that like WCBW, the station was on the air reporting news of the attack.
Other experimental stations operating at the time included General Electric’s station, W2XB, in Schenectady, NY; Don Lee’s station, W6XAO, in Los Angeles; and the Balaban and Katz station, W9XBK, in Chicago, IL. There was at least one additional commercial station operating, Philco Corporation’s WPTZ in Philadelphia, PA. No information about any programming relating to Pearl Harbor airing on these stations has yet come to light.
2 “Television Highlights.” New York Times. 7 Dec. 1941: X14.
3 Robinson, Marc. Brought to You in Living Color: 75 Years of Great Moments in Television & Radio from NBC. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003: 23.
4 “Television Develops New Presentation Of War News as Events occur Swiftly.” Broadcasting. 15 Dec. 1941: 16.
8 Bliss, Edward. “Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 220.
10 Quoted in Mark S. Monmonier’s Maps with the News: The Development of American Journalistic Cartography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, Page 204).
11 Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. New York: Columbia University Press, 67.
12 Sterling, Christopher H. and John Micheal Kittross. Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. 3rd Edition. New York City: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2002: 230.