The aging Television Generation has an awful lot to contemplate this weekend, as almost every major media outlet commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John
F. Kennedy on Friday, November 22, 1963 and the events of the long weekend that followed.
At the time, the wall-to-wall coverage -- beginning with early reports that the president had been shot while traveling in a motorcade in Dallas -- comprised the first major television “event” for what was still a very young medium. The entire world stopped that day and remained breathless for days to follow, transfixed by television news coverage in a way it had never before been.
Nothing like it would happen again until the morning of September 11, 2001. But twelve years after the terrorist attacks that claimed thousands of lives, no single newscast or Internet report stands out as a definitive recording of that event -- largely because the coverage was everywhere, followed by hundreds of millions of people not only on television but on the Internet. By dramatic contrast, fifty years later, the images and footage of legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite announcing first that President Kennedy had been shot -- and later, after much careful fact-checking and with great emotion in his delivery that the President had died -- have historical significance of their own.
Cronkite's words still give chills: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o'clock Eastern Standard time, some 38 minutes ago.”
Television that weekend also exposed countless people to something they had never before seen: A murder committed live on camera. On the morning of Sunday, November 24, millions of American families had left their television sets for the first time since Friday afternoon and gone to houses of worship to pray for the Kennedy family, their own families and the future of their country. Most of them returned home and gathered around their TVs with their children to learn if there had been any further developments in the ongoing story -- only to watch in shock and horror as Jack Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald in a hallway of the Dallas Municipal Building.
The following day came another iconic television moment, as different as possible from the murder the day before: A live shot of three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting as his father's coffin passed in front of him during the presidential funeral procession in Washington, D.C.
As you read this, cbsnews.com will have just begun streaming extended wall-to-wall black-and-white news footage of its coverage that weekend, concluding on Monday. ( Don't be alarmed if there is nothing to be seen in the wee small hours of the morning. Television “signed off” around 1 or 2 a.m. in those days and did not resume until several hours later.) The special cbsnews.com feed will go dark as well.) It should be fascinating to watch, given the comparative antiquity of television technology at the time.
Here's a fascinating footnote from the CBS News site: Most people think The Beatles made their American television debut on February 4, 1964 on CBS’ “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but they were on CBS the morning of November 22, interviewed by Mike Wallace on the “CBS Morning News.” According to CBS the interview was set to be repeated that night on the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” but for obvious reasons that never happened.
There is much more to contemplate this weekend about the role television has played in all of our lives during the last five decades. Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of “Doctor Who” on British television. BBC America tonight will telecast a movie about the humble beginnings of “Who” titled “An Adventure in Space and Time.”
On Saturday afternoon at 2:50 p.m. ET there will be a live global telecast on BBC America and elsewhere of a game-changing new episode of “Doctor Who” that will mark the departure of the most recent Doctor, played by Matt Smith; feature the brief returns of the previous Doctor, played by David Tennant and his companion Rose, played by Billie Piper; explain more about the strange War Doctor played by John Hurt, and introduce the latest Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi. According to the understood “Who” mythology, Capaldi must be the last Doctor -- which means when he chooses to depart the role the franchise will come to a close. I suspect there is more to the mythology than we have been led to believe.
With so much to process about November 22 and 23, it is easy to forget that November 21 is also a significant date in the television history books. Thirty-three years ago yesterday CBS telecast the legendary episode of “Dallas” that revealed the identity of the person who had gunned down J.R. in the previous season's cliffhanger finale. (It was Sue Ellen's scheming sister, Kristin.) With an audience of over 83 million people it remains the most-watched episode (at its regular length and in its regular time period) of any entertainment series in the history of the medium. (The series finale of “M*A*S*H*” in 1983 drew even more viewers -- but it was 2 ½ hours long, so the comparison isn't valid.)
All but forgotten, but no less fascinating, is the episode of CBS’ “Maude” (the second of a two-part story) that ran on November 21, 1972, in which Maude Findlay, a 47-year-old grandmother, decided to have an abortion -- two months before Roe v. Wade made the procedure legal nationally. (At the time, abortion was legal in the state of New York, where “Maude” was set.) There was some controversy, but the first airing of this episode did not cause any significant trouble beyond a few advertisers canceling their buys and a few affiliates choosing not to run it. But when it came time the following summer to repeat the episode amid the ongoing protests that followed the passing of Roe v. Wade into law, dozens of CBS affiliates elected not to air it.
Rounding out the memorable television anniversaries of the week is the November 17, 1981 wedding of Luke and Laura on ABC's “General Hospital” which attracted over 30 million viewers and thirty-two years later remains the highest rated episode of a daytime drama in the history of the medium. I'm comfortable predicting that record will hold until the end of time.