40th Anniversary of the Bicentennial

Happy Fourth of July, everyone. Today the United States of America celebrates its 240th birthday. That means today is also the 40th anniversary of the Bicentennial. According to Broadcasting, the networks knew their TV coverage of the Bicentennial wasn’t going to draw huge ratings. Viewers were more likely to head outside to celebrate rather than stay home and watch television. That didn’t stop NBC, for example, from spending $1.5 million to provide over 95 remote broadcasts involving more than 1,200 NBC News personnel.

Here’s a brief look at how ABC, CBS, and NBC covered the Bicentennial on Sunday, July 4th, 1976, drawn from TV listings published in The New York Times. If you watched any of these programs that day, hit the comments with your memories.

ABC: Great American Birthday Party

ABC opted not to devote its entire broadcast day to Bicentennial coverage. The network aired two hour-long specials under the “Great American Birthday Party” title from 10:30-11:30AM and 1:30-2:30PM. They featured President Ford’s addresses from Valley Forge and Independence Hall, Operation Sail, and the National Folk Life Festival.

At 7PM, ABC aired “The Glory Road West,” the second special under The American Idea banner. That was followed at 8PM by the 1973 movie The New Land. ABC wrapped up the Fourth of July with a final hour-long “Great American Birthday Party” recap special from 10-11PM.

CBS: In Celebration of Us

CBS had the most extensive coverage, airing “In Celebration of Us” practically all day. Walter Cronkite anchored the network’s Bicentennial coverage, with began at 8AM. Featured guests were Alistair Cooke, Valerie Harper, Beverly Sills, and Archibald MacLeish.

Events covered included President Ford’s address from Independence Hall, the Bicentennial wagon train, Anniversary Almanac, Operation Sail, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, bell ringing ceremonies across the country, the 54th Independence Stampede and Rodeo, parades, the Papa French Jazz Band, the St. Louis Air Show, New York City fireworks, the Boston Esplanade Orchestra with Arthur Fiedler, Washington D.C. fireworks, and more.

“In Celebration of Us” ran uninterrupted until midnight with the exception of two breaks: one from 6-7PM for local and network news and another from 11-11:30PM for network news. The final 11:30PM-12AM half-hour was a recap of the day’s events.

NBC: The Glorious Fourth

NBC also kicked off its Bicentennial coverage at 8AM. David Brinkley, John Chancellor, and Betty Furness served as hosts. Coverage included Operation Sail, the Louis Armstrong Memorial Jazz Ceremony, and more. A special installment of Meet the Press, with five governors attending the National Governors Conference, aired in its usual 12-1PM time slot. Local and network news aired from 6-7PM.

During prime time, the network switched to specials. “Happy Birthday, America” ran from 7-8:30PM. Paul Anka was host to Gordon Cooper, Jim Irwin, Ed Mitchell, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Sandy Duncan, Arte Johnson, Evel Knievel, Mark Spitz, and others. “The Bob Hope Bicentennial Special” followed from 8:30-10PM with guests Debbie Reynolds, Donny and Marie, Sammy Davis, Jr., and The Captain and Tennille, and others.

John Chancellor and David Brinkley returned at 10PM for “The Best of the Fourth,” an hour-long recap special highlighting the day’s events.


Sources:

“Bicentennial eyes and ears.” Broadcasting. 12 Jul. 1976: 19-20.
“Television This Week.” New York Times. 4 Jul. 1976: D19.
“TV networks lose audience to real thing.” Broadcasting. 12 Jul. 1976: 20.


3 Comments

  • Pat Vassar says:

    I spent July 4, 1976, with Walter. It was my mother’s birthday, and I was entertaining, He kept me company through the day of cleaning and cooking. Once the company came, I had to say goodbye, but we enjoyed the Bicentennial fireworks of Pittsburgh from the roof of my building in Allegheny Center. A great memory.

  • Joe says:

    I remember watching that Bob Hope special on NBC. I remember 2 of the sketches on it were Bob and Sammy Davis as the anchormen of a TV news broadcast on July 4, 1776. Another one was an episode of THE TONIGHT SHOW (with Bob as the star) from July 4, 1876 (the centennial)

  • Joseph says:

    It was in 1976 that the annual Boston Pops concert and fireworks show became a national event, thanks to live TV coverage.

    I believe that ABC and NBC, along with CBS, carried portions of it (the fireworks-laden “1812 Overture” and “Stars And Stripes Forever”), but none of the networks carried the concert in its entirety.

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