1960 Winter Olympics – The First Televised Olympic Games

Revised February 2nd, 2014

The First Televised Olympic Games in the United States

The VIII Olympic Winter Games, better known as the 1960 Winter Olympics, were played in Squaw Valley, California from February 18th through 28th, 1960. They were the first Olympic Games to be broadcast on television in the United States. They were not, however, the first Olympic Games to be seen on television. That distinction goes to the 1936 Summer Olympics, played in Berlin and shown via closed circuit television. The 1948 Summer Olympics were broadcast by the BBC but only to sets within range of Wembley Stadium in London.

It wasn’t until 1960 that viewers in the United States were able to see the Olympics on television, through a combination of taped and live events. CBS broadcast 13 hours of coverage according to the CBS At 75 timeline over the course of 11 days. Sports reporters Chris Schenkel and Bud Palmer were joined by former Olympians Dick Button and Art Devlin, plus CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, to cover the games.

Contemporary Reviews of the TV Coverage

Jack Gould, writing for The New York Times, had this to say about the opening ceremonies:

The formality of opening the games admittedly was not conducive to exciting TV: even Vice President Nixon was allotted only one sentence. But C.B.S. missed what could have been a story of more than passing interest. Some close-ups of the sports representatives of the world, as well as a better description of the setting at Squaw Valley, Calif., could have been informative.

Instead there was the familiar manifestation of television’s preoccupation with television’s role in reporting the news. Walt Disney was presented before the cameras; Lowell Thomas and Art Linkletter were there and the C.B.S. reporters were painstakingly introduced. Even Mrs. Andrea Mead Lawrence, the last skier to carry the Olympic torch, was revealed as a C.B.S. aide. [1].

The New York Times also wrote about the live coverage shown on Sunday, February 21st:

The spectators at Squad Valley got a more dramatic over-all view of the ski jumping than did the television viewers but the slalom provided more effective close-ups on the screen than were available to the crowds lining the slopes. [2]

On most nights, the only coverage was a fifteen-minute selection of taped highlights aired from 11:15-11:30PM. All of the television coverage was in black-and-white.

Original Television Listings

The only live broadcasts were presented on Sunday, February 21st, Saturday, February 27th from 4:30-7PM and on Sunday, February 28th from 2-5PM. (The Saturday, February 20th coverage may have also been live.)

Here’s a full breakdown of the CBS coverage, taken from television listings in The New York Times:

Thursday, February 18th, 1960 [3]
7:30-8PM – Opening ceremonies, from Squad Valley, Calif.

Friday, February 19th, 1960 [4]
11:15-11:30PM – Taped highlights of day at Squad Valley, Calif.

Saturday, February 20th, 1960 [5]
1-2PM – Women’s downhill skiing event.
4:30-6PM – Olympic Winter Games.

Sunday, February 21st, 1960 [6]
2-5PM – Men’s giant slalom skiing and 60-meter ski jump.

Monday, February 22nd, 1960 [7]
11:15-11:30PM – Highlights of day’s events (Tape).

Tuesday, February 23rd, 1960 [8]
7:30-8:30PM – Women’s figure-skating finals.
11:15-11:30PM – Highlights of day’s events (Tape).

Wednesday, February 24th, 1960 [9]
11:15-11:30PM – Highlights of day’s events (Tape).

Thursday, February 25th, 1960 [10]
11:15-11:30PM – Highlights of day’s events (Tape).

Friday, February 26th, 1960 [11]
9-10PM – Men’s free-figure skating finals.
12-12:15AM – Highlights of day’s events (Tape).

Saturday, February 27th, 1960 [12]
4:30-7PM – Ice hockey.

Sunday, February 28th, 1960 [13]
2-5PM – The men’s 80-meter ski jump and closing ceremony of the games.

As always, it is important to note that television listings published in newspapers were based on information provided by the networks and were subject to change at the last minute. They may not be an accurate representation of what actually aired.

Surviving Television Coverage

How much of this coverage still exists? Quite a lot. The Paley Center for Media has the half-hour opening ceremonies (broadcast from 7:30-8PM on Thursday, February 18th), roughly two hours of hockey between the United States and the Soviet Union (broadcast from 4:30-6:30PM on Saturday, February 27th), roughly two hours of the men’s 80-meter ski jump (broadcast from 2-4PM on Sunday, February 28th) and an hour of the closing ceremonies (broadcast from 4-5PM on Sunday, February 28th).

According to The New York Times, the February 27th broadcast ran for two and a half hours; the Paley Center has two hours and ten minutes of coverage. In all, the Paley Center has six and a half hours of coverage.

Given that much of what the Paley Center has in its collection was originally broadcast live, it stands to reason that the other live telecasts were also recorded and could exist somewhere. As for the taped segments, they could also still be around somewhere.

Who knows what CBS has in its archives. UCLA’s Film & Television Archive has a two-minute segment — a kinescope taken from station KNXT in Los Angeles — of the opening ceremonies as broadcast by CBS. I couldn’t find any mention of the 1960 Winter Olympics at the Library of Congress or the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Works Cited:
1 Gould, Jack. “Olympic Ceremonies Taped in California.” New York Times. 19 Feb. 1960: 54.
2 “Downhill Today Wide-Open Race.” New York Times. 22 Feb. 1960: 21.
3 “Television.” New York Times. 18 Feb. 1960: 67.
4 “Television.” New York Times. 19 Feb. 1960: 55.
5 “Television.” New York Times. 20 Feb. 1960: 45.
6 “Television Programs: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.” New York Times. 21 Feb. 1960: X16.
7 “Television.” New York Times. 22 Feb. 1960: 37.
8 “Television.” New York Times. 23 Feb. 1960: 63.
9 “Television.” New York Times. 24 Feb. 1960: 75.
10 “Television.” New York Times. 25 Feb. 1960: 59.
11 “Television.” New York Times. 26 Feb. 1960: 55.
12 “Television.” New York Times. 27 Feb. 1960: 39.
13 “Television.” New York Times. 28 Feb. 1960: X18.

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9 Replies to “1960 Winter Olympics – The First Televised Olympic Games”

  1. “Why can’t we devote more of our prime-time schedule to the Winter Olympics?”, some CBS executive must have asked. And I can hear CBS president Jim Aubrey answering, “I don’t give a shit about the Olympics! The only way to grab the viewers’ eyeballs is REGULAR PROGRAMMING- the same thing, night after night. Predictability- THAT’S all they care about, and it’s all they WANT to see! Nobody is interested in seeing winter sports from Squaw Valley, or wherever the hell they’re taking place at. Look, except for filling an hour on Tuesday- I’m sick of looking at that fucking Dennis O’Keefe- and Friday- screw Desi Arnaz as well- NO FURTHER PRE-EMPTIONS!!! I’m going to make money for this company, no matter WHAT it takes!!!”. [And he did- Aubrey doubled CBS’ profits within five years, yet most of his prime-time schedules were the most banal, and toxic to “good television”]

    1. This was also the first U.S. telecast of an Olympics, so the fact there were only about fifteen hours of coverage, with very little in prime-time, may have been due to the fact that the Olympics were “unproven” as a TV attraction.

      CBS might not have wanted to risk losing viewers by having too much prime-time coverage from Squaw Valley.

  2. CBS News’ Sports Department actually produced this coverage, there being no separate CBS Sports at the time. Cronkite was a replacement for Jim McKay, who suffered a nervous breakdown (according to his second autobiography) shortly before. And CBS has more coverage than is in the museums. During one of their 1990s Olympics telecasts, they showed parts of the 1960 skating finals coverage, plus an ad for Renault, one of the sponsors, along with a clip from the Opening Ceremony. (CBS also has kines of its 1960 Rome Olympics coverage, which McKay hosted from New York in the pre-satellite era.)

  3. Of course, CBS has more footage of their ’60 Olympics coverage that they won’t release to any museum or broadcast archive. They’re “jealous” over their ownership of it, and simply won’t allow the full archives to be released publicly…which is a shame. At least Jim McKay got to cover the Summer Olympics from Rome.

    The primary reason CBS didn’t bid for the ’64 Olympics, I’m sure, is because of Jim Aubrey’s dictum that ‘prime-time MUST be the same, week in and week out- no exceptions!’. He believed regular entertainment programming was the way to win audiences and ad revenue- and that meant very few “specials”, and no documentaries, news specials, and sports programming in prime-time [he couldn’t do anything about “CBS REPORTS” “THE TWENTIETH CENTURY”, and a few other CBS News programs because of chairman Bill Paley’s insistance on keeping them right where they were, but he tried to sabotage “CBS REPORTS” by deliberately scheduling it in “bad” time periods]. After his departure in February 1965, sports programming slowly increased on weekend afternoons, but the network’s investment in the New York Yankees eventually proved to be a “lemon”.

  4. That half-hour CBS broadcast of ‘Winter Olympics: Opening Ceremonies’ garnered the second best-ever Nielsen for an opener of the winter games with a 24.2HH/37%.

    Wikipedia indicates that CBS paid only $50,000 to secure broadcast rights for the 1960 games, a veritable bargain for 13 hours of primetime programming done without the costly host-broadcaster type production requirements of today. I seem to remember there was a heated bidding war for 1964 ‘Winter Olympic’ games that occurred just before the 1960 games, and I think ABC brashly picked the 1964 games up for a $1 million fee, rather unheard of in those days.

    In a way, I kind of miss the old days where coverage of the ‘Winter Olympics’ was not so blanketed across all dayparts as it is today, largely to recoup investment in the ridiculous rights fees.

    Mr. Fred Silverman must have been out of the same school as Mr. Jim Aubrey, because I distinctly remember him being interviewed by the media on his somewhat novel decision to use his burgeoning hit ABC series as lead-ins to 1976 ‘Winter Olympics’ coverage, not wanting to have the ‘Winter Olympics’ drag down his huge weekly victories that he was rolling up that season and not wanting to in any way diminish the numbers he promised to deliver for perenially-third-place ABC affiliates during the February Sweep that year.

    Mr. Silverman, having just introduced the ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ miniseries to stunning numbers, used highly promoted episodes of his hit series as lead-ins to ‘Winter Olympics’, and got some superb numbers that year. For instance, on Sunday February 4th, 1976:

    8 pm ‘The Six Million Dollar Man: Secret of Bigfoot -pt 2’ 30.9HH/45%
    9 pm ‘Winter Olympics’ 23.2/37%

    Perhaps harkening back to Mr. Silverman’s golden gut wisdom, I do note that NBC President Miss Angela Bromstad this year is using ‘Winter Olympics’ to introduce a mini-sized half-hour preview of ‘The Marriage Ref’ on the final night of the games. Had I been her, I would have found a way to wedge special episodes of some of NBC’s strategic series into the ‘Winter Olympics’ mix too: ‘Chuck’, ‘The Biggest Loser’ and ‘The Office’ could have all done special episodes to be sprinkled throughout NBC’s February 12-28th primetime.

  5. Great research (as always)! I do wish that Paley had more than 6.5 of the 13 hours as they are the main CBS repository for the early stuff, but at least its a good chunk and includes the opening and closing ceremonies. Hopefully CBS has it all. (I’m very curious to know what was seen on American TV of earlier Olympics (1950s), i.e. on the network evening news or syndicated news programs like Telenews.)

  6. The El Camino High School Senior Band from Sacramento, California, played for the 1960 Opening Ceremonies. From film footage I have seen, probably two other high school bands played with El Camino. One might have been the Porterville High School Band.
    El Camino students were very proud and pleased that our High School Senior Band was chosen to participate at the Winter Olympics. And very exciting!

  7. An elderly friend of mine seems to think that on the evening of February 27th, 1960, CBS changed it’s broadcast schedule for February 28th, carrying two and a half hours of Olympic coverage from Squaw Valley from 11 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. Eastern to cover the final U.S. hockey game vs. Czechoslovakia live (which the U.S. needed to win to win the gold, which they did); and a half-hour from 4:30 to 5 Eastern to show the closing ceremonies.

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