Twenty years removed, network news luminaries recall TV's impact and coming of age on the day JFK died
Note to readers: On the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in 1983, The Dallas Morning News published a 78-page commemorative magazine. My contribution was headlined “The Emergence of Television News: How assassination coverage moved TV into a new era.” I interviewed Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Robert MacNeil, John Chancellor and Edwin Newman for the piece. Only Rather and MacNeil have survived until the 50th anniversary of that dark day.
The entire magazine was heavily edited to ensure accuracy and a very matter-of-fact approach. So that’s how this reads. But these interviews still resonate -- for me at least. And 30 years later, they, too, have become part of the historical record.
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
CBS’s Walter Cronkite was the first television newsman to break the news.
At 12:40 p.m. (Dallas time), he interrupted the soap opera As the World Turns with a bulletin that President John F. Kennedy had been “seriously wounded” in Dallas.
ABC followed at 12:42, while CBS resumed its soap for seven minutes. At 12:46, NBC caught up with Don Pardo, now the announcer for the network’s Saturday Night Live, telling viewers that Kennedy had been rushed to an emergency room.
Within an hour, the White House had announced Kennedy’s death and the three commercial networks had begun their marathon stretches of commercial-free coverage.
By the time regularly scheduled programming resumed on Tuesday, Nov. 26, NBC had broadcast 71 hours of assassination coverage, the last 41 hours and 18 minutes of which was continuous. ABC broadcast 60 hours, and CBS, 55.
Although the networks had lost a combined total of about $40 million in commercial revenues in four days, they had gained immeasurable respect.
The verdict was almost unanimous. Television news had, in the words of historian Theodore H. White, “achieved greatness by reporting true drama with clarity, good taste and responsibility in a fashion that stabilized a nation in emotional shock and on the verge of hysteria.”
Even before the assassination, television news showed signs of having come of age.
In early fall 1963, for the first time, Americans chose television over newspapers and radio as their primary news source, according to a Roper Organization survey commissioned by the Television Information Office.
Two months before Kennedy was assassinated, CBS became the first commercial network to expand its nightly news broadcast from 15 minutes to a half hour. The opening story on the new CBS Evening News was Cronkite’s exclusive interview with Kennedy.
On the day of the president’s death, a shaken Cronkite couldn’t stop his voice from catching after informing the country that Kennedy was dead. Later that night, in a short commentary that aired just before midnight Dallas time, one of his principal competitors, NBC anchor Chet Huntley, spoke of “pockets of hatred in our country, areas and communities where the disease is permitted or encouraged.”
Huntley, Frank McGee and Bill Ryan took turns anchoring NBC’s breaking news coverage of the assassination. ABC’s anchors were Ron Cochran and Ed Silverman, whose names have been largely forgotten.
Many of today’s television viewers get their news from three men who reported from Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963: Dan Rather, who replaced Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News on March 9, 1981; Peter Jennings, who succeeded the late Frank Reynolds this summer as anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight; and Robert (Robin) MacNeil, co-anchor of public television’s MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour.
John Chancellor, resident commentator on the NBC Nightly News, and Edwin Newman, longtime NBC anchor-reporter, also played important roles in their networks’ assassination coverage.
Dan Rather was the 32-year-old chief of CBS’s New Orleans bureau at the time of the assassination.
Rather, a native of Wharton, Texas, who had grown up in Houston, was coordinating the coverage of Kennedy’s Texas trip. When the shots were fired at the motorcade, Rather was stationed along the route. After the presidential limousine sped past him, he raced back to CBS affiliate KRLD-TV (now KDFW) and took charge of the network’s coverage from Dallas.
A month later, CBS sent Rather to Washington to cover the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“It was a concentrated maturing process for me,” says Rather. He describes the immediate aftermath of the assassination as an “extended blur” during which he kept his emotions in check and strove to match the resiliency of a boxer.
“A professional fighter,” he says, “can go in there and take punch after punch and not show pain, and do the job at hand. Every reporter prays to God, I think, to get a world-class story just once . . . and you pray that you’re at your very best on it. That’s the sense in which I was lucky. It’s difficult to talk to anybody about this who’s not a reporter -- because it sounds terrible -- but I never expect to have a bigger story than the Kennedy assassination. How can you?
“I do think that television news was different after that,” he adds. “After that day -- and forever more -- broadcast journalism operated with a somewhat higher sense of purpose and with more confidence. Not only did our friends in print doubt that television could do it, but I think we doubted it ourselves.
“After the assassination, a lot of people in print felt that television could do it.”
Until the Kennedy assassination, radio seemed to be the medium that “strengthened the bonds of community” during a crisis, Rather says.
“Television was beginning to do some of that, but it passed from adolescence to adulthood during the assassination period,” he says. “There were these constant images of who and what we are as people. That’s something that television is very good at. But I’m not sure that before November 22nd we realized how well we could do that, or how important it was to do that. The shots of Washington during the funeral, the riderless horse -- these things just jumped off the screen at you.”
Robert MacNeil, a 32-year-old correspondent with NBC News at the time, made the official announcement of Kennedy’s death during the network’s first hour of coverage.
“I think the thing that impressed me,” he says today, “was how careful everybody was to be absolutely sure of what they were talking about and not to just sort of throw it all out there.
“When Reagan was shot, there were reports out of the hospital that were just grossly inaccurate. In some cases, they were prepared to go with just about any rumor.
“I don’t think you’re ever hurt by being conservative, because the American public isn’t interested in whether CBS had it two minutes before NBC. What’s important is the event and whether you can rely on the information.”
MacNeil heard the shots that killed Kennedy. He was riding in the first of two press buses following the dignitaries’ limousines. His first dispatches for NBC were filed from the Texas School Book Depository, which had the nearest telephone.
“The dominant emotion was, ‘My God, what a story!’ “ MacNeil says. “It wasn’t until about three days later that my own sort of personal feeling about what had happened really caught up with me. Then, when I got back to Washington, I was very depressed. It really cast me down. The assassination ended all our innocence about a lot of things, and it created the first suspicions about whether the government was telling us the truth. It was much easier to believe everything before Kennedy was assassinated.
“I think television provided a wonderful sense of national unity and catharsis,” he says, referring to the assassination coverage. “It fed the insatiable appetite of the nation and the world that weekend. It provided a kind of eloquent wake during a time of fantastic events. Most of them didn’t need to have very much said about them. They just needed to be shown.”
Peter Jennings, like MacNeil, a native of Canada, was a 25-year-old reporter with the Canadian Television Network when he heard the startling news over the public address system at the Toronto airport. Without checking with his boss, he caught the first available flight to Dallas and began telephoning dispatches to the network. Jennings’ audio reports were accompanied by wire service photos taken in Dallas. He stayed in the city for a day before catching another flight to Washington to cover Kennedy’s funeral.
“I did not have any really weak moment until the funeral was over,” Jennings says. “I went back to my hotel and then I just sat on my bed and cried.”
In the 20 years since Kennedy’s death, Jennings has been around the world covering wars and other assassinations. His experiences have diminished the impact of his first day in Dallas.
“It’s probably going to sound very pompous,” he says, “but I have been witness to so much history over the years. It was a stunning moment to have been there in Dallas, but there’s just been so much more. I’ve covered seven wars; I have seen countless people die and governments change. The thing I remember most about that time is the strength of the nation. The nation gathered itself up and proceeded.”
NBC’s Edwin Newman, then 44, was having lunch in New York the day Kennedy was slain. He heard the news from a CBS correspondent, who joined him in the race back to their respective offices. After anchoring NBC’s radio coverage for several hours, Newman was told he would be going to Dallas. He wanted to change clothes first because he was wearing a light-gray plaid suit “that just wasn’t appropriate.” His supervisor said there was no time.
During the chartered bus ride to the airport, Newman learned that Kennedy’s body was being flown to Washington. That suddenly became the reporter’s destination.
“One of the things that has been said, with some justice, is that television brought the country together,” Newman says. “I think there was a sense of gratitude at the time that probably would not be present now, because it would be taken for granted that we ought to be able to do these things. We did demonstrate that we could cover it -- cover it with some dignity, competence and thoughtfulness. It was a great national injury, a great humiliation.”
The most jarring image was Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting, which NBC captured live with correspondent Tom Pettit shouting, “There is absolutely panic! Pandemonium has broken out!”
At the time Newman was at Dulles International Airport in Washington interviewing foreign dignitaries arriving for Kennedy’s funeral.
“Suddenly, you have this thing erupt,” he says, “when you’re putting microphones in the faces of presidents and prime ministers. That was extraordinary. There was a feeling that you were out of touch with reality.
“There were people during that time who were moved to tears on the air,” he says. “I was not one of them. You’re detached from the event, but, at the same time, you’re involved in it. How far do you go in joining in the national mourning or in promoting it, in a sense?”
John Chancellor was a 36-year-old NBC correspondent in Bonn, West Germany, on the day Kennedy died. He remembers hearing “an enormous clap of thunder” shortly after the Associated Press reported the death.
“A lot of us thought the war had started,” he recalls. “For an hour or so, it was very scary.”
After reporting West Germany’s reactions to the assassination, Chancellor decided he wanted to return home.
“You felt that you had discovered some kind of flaw -- or some kind of cancer -- in the United States,” he says. “I just felt that there was something more than my career that was tugging at me, making me want to go home.”
Nine months later, NBC granted his request. Upon returning, Chancellor made a point to watch some of the powerful television work he had missed while in West Germany. “I watched some of the coverage of the funeral, and it was just majestic,” he says. “I’d never thought of this, but it was an interesting test of television’s ability to cover a very complicated story and to do it with taste.”
In November a year later, Chancellor returned to Bonn to prepare a retrospective that will be broadcast Nov. 22nd during the Today program’s two-hour remembrance of Kennedy.
“I’m sorry for the people of Dallas,” Chancellor says. “I know what they’re going to go through. A lot of Dallasites will say, ‘Oh my God, why do you have to dredge that up again?’ But that’s wrong, because Dallas simply happened to be the stage on which this drama occurred.”
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Note to readers: Just a few months before his Feb. 4, 1987 death, Liberace appeared in Dallas to promote his book The Wonderful Private World of Liberace. He continued to live the fiction of his heterosexuality throughout an entertaining, quotable press conference. As HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra nears its Sunday, May 26th premiere, here’s a look at how he was back in mid-fall, 1986. This article was originally published on Nov. 17th of that year.
By ED BARK
Vladziu Valentino Liberace, who broke into show business using the name Walter Busterkeys, is dragging on a filterless cigarette, wearing a black leather jacket, but not looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One.
He has four rings on his fingers, but no bells on his toes. The immaculately white teeth are obviously capped, the hairpiece is a dead give-away and the 67-year-old face is unlined, save for a pair of designer creases in the forehead. The voice is firmer than fey.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asks. “I’m a strange smoker. I quit for six months and then I start in again. I figure that way at least I cut down to half. But I can quit any time I want.”
A small collection of reporters is unresponsive, leading Liberace to press on.
“Tonight I’ll be reunited with four of my dogs,” he says. “They’re coming in from Palm Springs to meet me at the airport.”
His other 22 dogs remain in Las Vegas. Some of them, he says, are Chinese fighting dogs; they attack strangers, so they don’t travel particularly well. Liberace also has a West Highland Terrier, “which we call my West Highland Terrorist.”
He is in town to promote his new book, The Wonderful Private World of Liberace, by Liberace. It’s a lavish, 224-page, oversized volume, loaded with pictures of the author and his surroundings, and retailing for $29.95.
“As much as people think they know me,” he says, “they really don’t. They don’t really know Liberace the person, and this is what this book is all about.”
Chapter 3 is something of a revelation. Titled “I Lost My Virginity at Sixteen,” it details his deflowering at the hands of a nightclub blues singer named Miss Bea Haven. The chapter seems somewhat out of sync with the rest of the book, which includes long discourses on Liberace’s dogs, housekeepers, houses, his sainted mother, Frances, and cooking. In Chapter 9, readers are shown how to make Liberace Sticky Buns. “Believe me, there’ll be none left over,” he writes.
“The fact that I lost my virginity at 16, I don’t think is all that sinful,” Liberace says, noting that other, gamier reminiscences were excised by the book’s publisher, Harper & Row. “I think sooner or later you have to lose your virginity. Otherwise I’d be some kind of freak.”
Liberace’s publicist for the day says that he once romanced figure skater Sonja Henie, who left him and “broke his heart.” Save for the misbehavin’ Miss Bea Haven, the book is mum on the author’s sex life.
Liberace, who punctuates his speech with “ya knows,” has been a nationally known figure since 1952, when The Liberace Show premiered on NBC. Lately, he has been breaking attendance records at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and playing Vegas regularly. He has endured because he is a genuine original. Show business has many flamboyant entertainers, but they can’t hold a candle, or a candelabra, to Liberace.
“I was fortunate to come along at a time when I had no competition,” he says. “Now people are pitted against each other to create a competitive atmosphere that didn’t exist when I was on TV. People accepted me for what I was and didn’t say, ‘Ah, I don’t like him, let’s turn on that other fella who does the same thing.’ There was nobody that did the same thing.”
On the piano player front, only Elton John comes even close. But Liberace describes John as “bizarre, where I have never been bizarre. With him, the headdresses and the glasses and all of that, you really have to be told who it is. But with me, there’s no question.”
Liberace has been the subject of two other authorized books, Liberace Cooks and Liberace.
“I try to beat them to the punch,” he says of Kitty Kelley-type bios. “Those books are exposes, and I think they’re very devastating. But I will admit, I enjoy reading them, like I enjoy reading the rags. When I go to the market, I’ll buy the rags, The Enquirer and all that. It’s kind of fun . . . It’s gotten to the point where you can tell who’s hot and who’s not. All of a sudden, you start reading every week about Vanna White, and this one and that one. Then all of a sudden they’re replaced by other people who suddenly make some kind of an impression. For a while it was Michael Jackson. Then it was Prince. It’s always tinged with a little scandalous material.”
Liberace disapproves of entertainers who bring their scandals onstage with them.
“If I’m sitting in an audience, and I pay $25 or $30 for a ticket, I don’t want to hear that ‘Thanks for giving me another chance’ talk. I want to be entertained by that person’s talent. It’s amazing how many of them say, “I’m straight now and I’m doing well’ and so forth. I really think it’s asking for sympathy, to be understood. I don’t think it enhances their talent any . . . I think I would like to be remembered for making people happy and bringing some comfort and joy into their lives without preaching or getting on any soapbox or anything.”
Today’s audiences, he adds, are “quick to forgive. Years ago, if you made a boo-boo of any kind at all, you had to live with it for the rest of your life. I don’t think that exists anymore.”
Liberace’s book pictures him with several of today’s trendier personalities, including Cyndi Lauper, Rick James and “my young friend” Michael Jackson, for whom he planned to cook a “real Southern soul-food meal” until learning Jackson was a vegeterian. He fell back on a vegetarian dish smothered with a packaged Hollandaise sauce. Michael reportedly loved it.
He has been offered, he says, a part as himself on Miami Vice, but declined because, “If I’m going to play myself, then I’m not really adding to my prestige.” Cast him as a district attorney or a “sidekick to Don Johnson” and he’d be on the set tomorrow, Liberace says.
He’ll probably endure for as long as there’s a flounce in his step. At this stage of his career, overstaying his welcome has become a principal concern. Lucille Ball comes to mind.
“She had so much going for her already with the old I Love Lucy series,” he says. “I’ve watched her new show (Life With Lucy) a few times and I think she still has the know-how and the ability. But I look at her now and I think, ‘If that was my mother up there, would I like it? Would I want her to do pratfalls and things like that?’ I think her series should have a little more dignity to it, because she is a respected 75-year-old woman. And I don’t think she can do at 75 what she did 35 years ago.
“I think George Burns is a one-of-a-kind octogenarian,” he adds. “I saw him do a show in Vegas just recently, and he was very sharp and he didn’t miss a cue, didn’t miss a joke. But when he walked off that stage, he was an old, old man. Took those tiny little steps.
“I don’t ever want to be caught in that same situation. I want to bounce off.”
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Note to readers: It’s been 20 Springs since a 51-day standoff between federal law enforcement officials and followers of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh ended in a shocking April 19th conflagration shown on live television. I chronicled the exhaustive local and national media coverage from beginning to end.
The below two stories, originally published on March 11, 1993 and April 21, 1993, are divided by video of Fox4 reporter Richard Ray’s excellent look back at the tragedy in a recent piece tied to the 20th anniversary.
By ED BARK
WACO -- Sundance the swaybacked horse, gratefully nibbling on just about anything offered to him, seems at home on his range with TV satellite trucks, tents and RVs.
The increasingly heavyset palomino is part of the feeding frenzy along a middle-of-nowhere road lined with modern-day tools of the TV trade. For $150 a day, Sundance's owner has been renting a corner of the horse's pasture to Dallas' KDFW-TV (Channel 4), KHOU-TV of Houston and the CBS network. Sundance has become a mascot -- and only an occasional irritant -- in an ongoing electronic stakeout two miles from the compound of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh and his followers. The horse occasionally has been known to nibble on the television cables snaking his turf.
"We'll be the first station to lose a live shot because of a horse,” joked Channel 4 news director Mike Sechrist, who flew to Waco via helicopter Wednesday.
"You want to let your people know you appreciate what they're doing,” said Sechrist, who had just returned from a food run into town. Law enforcement officials manning the entry-point to the media village took a liking to his white KDFW gimme cap. Sechrist said he promised to have a fresh supply flown in when the Channel 4 chopper arrived to pick him up later Wednesday.
Tank-sized, techno-vehicles from Dallas-Fort Worth's three network affiliate stations have been joined by the likes of StarCam 5 from KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City, SpaceLink from KTRK-TV in Houston and Challenger 5 from KENS-TV in San Antonio. A bright, balmy, breezy Wednesday marked Day 11 of the standoff between the Davidians and an army of federal agents.
"During the day it's just scratching for stories. The slightest little change becomes a big deal,” said veteran WFAA-TV (Channel 8) reporter Doug Fox.
Wednesday's principal itch was Ron Engelman, host of a talk show on Dallas' KGBS radio (1190 AM). During his Tuesday program, Engelman asked the Davidians to display a white flag if they wanted legal and medical help. A white banner was displayed the same afternoon from a top-floor window of their compound. They later unfurled a printed message -- "God help us. We want the press” -- on a second white banner.
Engelman's next step was a trip to the media village, where he arrived at midmorning Wednesday. He quickly was surrounded by reporters and cameras.
"Are you concerned at all about being used by them (the Davidians)?” asked Channel 5 reporter Mike Androvett.
No, said Engelman, who in turn accused the media of "not asking the right questions” of federal agents.
During that day's regular 10:30 a.m. news briefing, FBI special agent Bob Ricks criticized Engelman's efforts as "counterproductive.”
Some reporters assigned to cover the standoff haven't been as conciliatory toward Engelman.
"This guy's a nut. He gives us all a bad name,” said a Dallas TV correspondent who asked not to be identified. "Instead of covering the story, he's become a part of it. And that violates every journalistic ethic. He's gonna prolong the standoff. He's gonna get people killed.”
KXAS-TV (Channel 5) producer David Magana, who has coordinated on-site coverage of the standoff since Day 1, said Engelman's involvement had done far more than "blur the lines' between news reporting and newsmaking.
"This one has been dragged through the mud and the cow pasture,” he said.
Magana has returned to Dallas once, to wash his clothes, since the standoff began Feb. 28.
"It was chaos at first, complete chaos,” he said.
Channel 5 and other TV crews since have settled into something of a routine. During the station's noon newscast Wednesday, Magana stayed in touch with Dallas by simultaneously listening through an earpiece and speaking through a mike.
"This is my life,” he said matter-of-factly. "If I had any more orifices in my head, there'd be a phone in 'em.”
The cost of such coverage is imposing. Satellite time alone has a price tag of $8 a minute.
"This is like a hole you're pouring money into,” said Channel 4's Sechrist.
Some outfits are making a buck. Scott Lewis, a radio frequency engineer for Mississippi State University, drove the school's satellite truck 700 miles to Waco in order to sell time to interested parties. Clients, brokered through Satellite Management International of Dallas, have included A Current Affair and a station in Hamburg, Germany.
"Its main goal is to teach students,' Lewis said of the MSU truck. "But when it's available it's rented out.'
Lewis also has been contributing to the local economy. Cab rides from the media village to his motel room cost $25. He also has invested in a T-shirt with a "God Sez Wait” inscription.
One reporter -- Channel 4's Brett Shipp -- couldn't wait any longer Wednesday. He headed back to Dallas to join his pregnant wife, who is having a sonogram Thursday.
"I'm beat,” Shipp said succinctly.
Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com
|Relieved that it's over, but shaken by how it ended, local television news operations are looking forward to life after the cult standoff in Waco.|
Coverage of the 51-day siege was a budget-bleeding combination of constant satellite feeds, around-the-clock overtime and incidentals such as campers, hotel rooms and state of the art, high-powered camera lenses.
|"I didn't add up the costs. I was afraid it would scare me too bad," KXAS-TV (Channel 5) news director David Overton said Tuesday. "Our company (LIN Broadcasting) just told us to do what we had to do."|
Overton and the news directors at KDFW-TV (Channel 4) and WFAA-TV (Channel 8) said the extra expense of covering the standoff would approach or exceed six figures at each station. Satellite time alone costs an average of $8 a minute, Overton said. Stations had to reserve blocs of time in advance and pay the full price whether or not all of it was used.
"There's a wonderful sense of relief that it's finally over," Channel 4 news director Mike Sechrist said. "And then there's this horrible feeling about the way it got resolved. We sat here with open mouths when the fire started."
Live coverage of the Branch Davidian complex in flames was seen in about 725,000 homes in Dallas-Fort Worth between 12:15 and 1:30 p.m. Monday. Channel 8's coverage generally drew the highest ratings throughout the day, with Channels 4 and 5 usually running well behind. But Channel 5 had the first live TV reports of the assault on the compound by federal agents.
Channel 5 reporter Mike Androvett, tipped that "something might happen' early Monday morning, decided to spend the night in the station's on-site RV instead of a motel. He went on the air "literally half-asleep,' initially worrying about being incoherent.
Mr. Androvett, who covered the standoff full time with only a handful of days off since Feb. 28, said he "finally had a letdown" after Monday's 10 p.m. newscast. "I sat in my hotel room for a minute and tried to take inventory. Did we do everything we should have? What does it all mean?"
Channel 8 news director John Miller said he was "surprised by how much it got to me, the emotions and sadness I felt" when the Davidian complex became an inferno.
"News people are generally so immune to feelings," he said. "But this was different, because we lived with it so long. Some of our people probably made a dozen trips back and forth to Waco. It really became a part of our existence. I never met (FBI briefer) Bob Ricks. But I felt I knew him very well because I watched him every day."
Throughout the standoff, Channel 5 was the only local TV station to carry the 10:30 a.m. briefings daily. It more than made up for a lapse that left the station without a satellite hookup to cover the first briefing on March 3. Channel 5 instead had to rely on a KRLD-AM radio audio feed while competing TV stations brought viewers live pictures.
"If you're not always thinking ahead, the technology out there will kill ya,' Mr. Overton said.
Channels 4, 5 and 8 plan to keep their satellite trucks in Waco until at least the end of the week. Channel 5's Androvett, who became a star reporter in the past two months, hopes to take some time off before returning to the station's Austin bureau.
"For all the reporters out here, it's been a grind," he said.
"As it begins to sink in, I think we'll be more and more horrified at what we saw Monday," Channel 8's Miller said. "Everybody's now busy trying to find somebody to blame. Society always does. To me, that obscures the point that this is a dangerous world and bad things happen."
Meanwhile in Mounds, Okla., filming continues on NBC's In the Line of Duty: Assault in Waco, starring Timothy Daly of Wings as cult leader David Koresh. Scheduled to air May 23 on Channel 5, the made-for-TV movie will still end on the day shooting began between federal agents and the Branch Davidians. An epilogue will tell their fates.
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Note to readers: Network television's mass convergence on the Papal Conclave this week reminded me of the majestic funeral of Pope John Paul II and its live, very early morning coverage in the U.S. This account was first published on April 9, 2005.
By ED BARK
When in Rome, turn back the clock to the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. (central time) for the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
Major broadcast and cable news networks answered a higher calling anyway, providing live, commercial-free coverage Friday from a glorious, sunlit setting in St. Peter's Square. Most Americans no doubt opted to catch replays or highlights. Those moved to witness history as it happened were best served when anchors and commentators fell eloquently silent in deference to the stirring sights and sounds enveloping the first true "television pope."
None was more powerful than his symbolic final bow at 5:40 a.m. (12:40 p.m. in Rome). Pallbearers tilted the pope's unadorned wooden casket downward to sustained applause from a crowd estimated at 100,000. Bells tolled, tears flowed. Fox News Channel further commemorated the emotion of the moment with a memorable shot of a young man weeping openly and unabashedly.
People from around the world rose magnificently and attentively to this occasion. For once, no one seemed to be playing to TV's cameras, whether in Rome, the pope's native Poland, Mexico City or on sleeping bags while watching the service from inside Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
Networks leaned on translators and an array of priests, monsignors and bishops to help with the basics of this unprecedented, firsthand look at a pope's funeral. ABC generally had the most affecting close-ups of individual mourners. Otherwise the network's intrusively talkative coverage, anchored by Charles Gibson, Cokie Roberts and the Rev. Keith Pecklers, repeatedly did a disservice to the service. Some viewers perhaps shouted "Amen!" when Gibson said at one point, "We will just watch and listen for a little while."
Too often, though, the Mass seemed beside the point, as when Gibson said, "Father Pecklers, take us back to the service." He did so, for a half-minute maybe, before Gibson turned to Terry Moran for a street-level report.
Rival networks, including Telemundo ("El funeral Juan Pablo II"), were souls of discretion in comparison, with on-site CBS anchor Harry Smith and company placing a distant runner-up in the chatter derby. All of the networks got gabby, though, during the 20 minutes it took to distribute Holy Communion.
Shortly after 5 a.m., with the funeral in its climactic stages, Fort Worth-based KXAS-TV (Channel 5) periodically shrunk the screen to offer mood-breaking printed news bulletins such as "N. TX. man has cardiac arrest; drives into house" and "Irving man took son on murder spree; gets death."
This was the networks' first pre-dawn live coverage since the Sept. 6,1997 funeral of Princess Diana, which started at 5 a.m. on Saturday. It also was the first major news event of roughly the last quarter-century without any role for Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather or Peter Jennings.
Brokaw retired in December as anchor of the NBC Nightly News, and Rather left the CBS Evening News last month. Jennings, still anchor of ABC's World News Tonight, announced earlier this week that he's undergoing treatment for lung cancer.
Gibson graciously ended ABC's coverage by wishing Jennings well.
"Peter, it has been an honor to broadcast here in your stead," he said.
Replaying the launch of Fox -- and revisiting its original home in Dallas -- on the network's 25th anniversary
Note to readers: Fox is throwing a big televised party for itself Sunday (April 22nd, 7 p.m. central) to celebrate its 25th anniversary as a national broadcast network.
They're a bit late. Fox actually launched on Sunday, April 5, 1987 with the premieres of Married . . . with Children and The Tracey Ullman Show.
I've been covering Fox from its very beginning, dating to the time when its owned-and-operated station in Dallas was KDAF-TV (Ch. 33) rather than KDFW-TV (Channel 4).
This article, first published on April 3, 1987, looks at both the initial expectations for the network and some of the detractors who pretty much discounted its chances of ever being a prime-time force. A quarter-century later, Fox again will finish this television season as the No. 1 network among advertiser-craved 18-to-49-year-olds. It's come a long way since a young unknown named Johnny Depp starred in Fox's first drama series, 21 Jump Street.
By ED BARK
The Fox network enters the lions' den Sunday. Will it become a different animal with a sharp bite or a sacrificial lamb to be carved during the Easter season by the friendly cutthroats at NBC, ABC and CBS?
For now, there is only euphoria at Fox.
"Our stations are walking around with their heads in the clouds in excitement about this venture," says Jamie Kellner, president of the Fox Broadcasting Co.
Equally enthusiastic is Ray Schonbak, general manager of KDAF-TV (Channel 33), one of seven stations owned and operated by Fox.
"I think Fox is going to allow us to grow more rapidly than anyone else in this marketplace," he says in an interview. "Of all the stations in the market, no one's willing to take greater risks than us. Everyone else is too busy trying to protect something. They're afraid to face the future. But they'd better. They'd better start looking at it."
Such talk doesn't come cheap. In the short-term future -- for the next five years -- Fox is prepared to lose $150 million or more in its bid to become a competitive alternative to what Fox chairman Barry Diller calls the "big elephant networks." The money will come from the seemingly bottomless pockets of Rupert Murdoch, the print baron who is indulging his interest in American television. Murdoch owns the 20th Century-Fox studios and television stations in Dallas, Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C.
Equally important, Fox has two-year contracts with 105 stations covering about 85 percent of the country. This brand new grouping of affiliate stations will receive cash compensation payments in return for carrying the Fox programming lineup. The arrangement, identical to that of an ABC, NBC or CBS station's relationship with its network, is a giant step beyond any other dreams of a "Fourth Network."
In the next two months, Fox will join the prime-time ratings race with six comedies, three dramas and a determination to build a foundation of young, "upscale" viewers. The first two half-hour comedies, Married . . . with Children and The Tracey Ullman Show, premiere Sunday in an "open-house" environment. Each show will be telecast three times, allowing audiences to watch it after watching favorites on the other three networks. By June 6, Fox plans to have five hours of prime-time in place, from 6 to 9 p.m. Sundays and from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturdays. Sundays will come first, with a regularly scheduled lineup of 21 Jump Street, Married . . . with Children, Duet, Mr. President and The Tracey Ullman Show fully in place on the night of May 3.
The initial nine series will be short on star power but long on behind-the-scenes creativity. Most viewers will recognize only the names of George C. Scott, star of Mr. President, and Patty Duke, who plays a 40-year-old woman attracted to a 28-year-old man in Karen's Song.
"The stars at the network really are the producers and writers who create the series for us," says Garth Ancier, the 28-year-old vice president of programming for Fox.
To that end, The Tracey Ullman Show is produced by Jim Brooks, the Oscar-winning director of Terms of Endearment and a producer/writer on esteemed television series such as Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant. Ullman is a British comedian/actress who has made several well-received appearances on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman.
Gary David Goldberg, whose UBU production company makes NBC's Family Ties, is involved with the romantic comedy Duet for Fox.
Stephen J. Cannell,who created The A-Team for NBC, is producing Fox's only one-hour show, 21 Jump Street, an action-adventure series about police who "infiltrate circles of high school criminals."
Mr. President has Ed (Taxi, Amen) Weinberger and Gene (M*A*S*H) Reynolds working behind the cameras.
Skeptics of such pedigrees include Brandon Tartikoff, NBC's president of entertainment and Ancier's boss during his six-year stay at the network.
"They have the fingernail on Jim Brooks' left pinky," Tartikoff says. "People like Brooks and Goldberg are not going to give their lifeblood to a program that is going to be seen in about 80 percent of the country on mostly UHF stations. They're buying marquee value, but it's going to come down to who's really going to do the show every week."
"I can't imagine that Tartikoff would say that," Fox chairman Barry Diller retorts. "Jim Brooks will not allow his name to be on anything unless he has a kind of maniacal involvement."
Also skeptical of Fox is Grant Tinker, who as chairman of NBC led the network from last to first in the prime-time ratings before resigning last year to return to television production.
"I'm not at all convinced it will work," he told television critics during a recent press conference announcing his new partnership with the Gannett Co. "The Joan Rivers thing would give me pause. I'm wondering, even with all that good creative input, whether they'll make it. But I'm not much of a seer."
"The Joan Rivers thing" is a touchy point with Fox executives. They take issue with reports that The Late Show with Joan Rivers has been a ratings failure since premiering Oct. 9 as Fox's first offering to affiliates. The Rivers show has averaged a 3.3 rating nationally, lower than the 4.0 rating projected by Fox, Kellner says. But Rivers supposedly is a hit among 18-to-49-year-olds, the principal target of most advertisers.
"Fox is not trying to be No. 1," Kellner says. "We're targeting that smaller, more desirable audience. Joan Rivers' audience is rich in all the most desirable demographics. Let NBC bulk up its late-night household ratings numbers with a bunch of older viewers."
Locally, Rivers is averaging only about a 2.0 rating on Channel 33. But that's double the audience the station had for its expensive reruns of Dynasty at that hour. Still, Channel 33 has had a tough time attracting viewers in this market since signing on as Metromedia-owned KRLD-TV on July 30, 1984.
Metromedia had visions of a fourth network, but its flops were legion. Thick of the Night, Rituals, Breakaway, The Jerry Lewis Show -- nothing worked. Metromedia eventually sold its stations to Murdoch. Channel 33 officially changed its call letters to KDAF and its allegiance to Fox on March 7, 1986.
"Dallas is probably one of our weaker markets," Ancier says. "We're working very hard to get that station up to par with the other Fox stations."
Schonbak, Channel 33's general manager, allows that "you always want to grow faster than you do. But we've come a long way very quickly in a very competitive market and in a tough economy."
Schonbak's first major programming move under the Fox banner was to cancel the station's weeknight 7 p.m. local newscast, which was losing considerable money. A carefully spoken, bottom line-oriented executive, he becomes animated when asked about the new trio of cost-conscious businessmen running the three major networks.
"I find it a little disheartening," he says, "when something like the sacrosanct news department is cut and people like Dan Rather get on the picket line and say the end is here. What does Dan Rather know about it? He's an anchorman, that's all he is. He doesn't deal with the operation of the business. He doesn't have the broad picture. He has one little area that he does. He sits in a chair in front of a camera and reads news . . . We are a business, and it must be looked at and run as a business first and television second. That doesn't mean that you do things less than what you should do."
Asked to name Channel 33's major accomplishments in Dallas, Schonback emphasizes the station's relationship with advertisers.
"Our people have become broader-based in market conceptualizations," he says. "The building and the moving of product is what we are here to do. We represent and we sell products through this medium, as well as entertainment. These are the people that underwrite the costs of entertainment product that we purchase to give to the public . . . I think we've brought the television market more alive, because we came in and they (other local stations) saw us as a viable threat to some of their dollars. And they started to react to that."
Schonback says Channel 33 is projecting a 5.0 rating to advertisers for the first group of Fox prime-time series. No current series on Channel 33 has that high an average. Each rating point equals about 15,000 households in the Dallas-Fort Worth viewing area.
Nationally, Fox executives emphasize that their "no-limo network" cannot be expected to match the ratings of the Big Three, at least not in the 1980s. Plans call for starting a new night of prime-time programming each year, with Fridays the next likely breakthrough in early 1988. The executives expect that younger viewers will switch to Fox first. In Ancier's view, "they're more used to being in an era where there are more viewing services available."
Someday, maybe, one or more of the established networks will be chasing the Fox. That's the dream. But for now:
"If you like to root for the underdogs," Kellner says, "I can assure you, you should be rooting for us."