REVEAL SHOT

A SOPHISTICATED LOOK AT FILM AND TELEVISION

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Network television covers the March on Washington – Aug. 28, 1963 (Part II) (UPDATED)

(UPDATE: This post now includes the beginning of CBS News’ continuous coverage of the march, starting at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time  on that Aug. 28, as well as the very end, at about 4:30 p.m.)

Reveal Shot presents Part II of its look at Big Three network coverage of the March On Washington, 50 years ago next Wednesday. In this installment, two of the most fascinating broadcast elements that survive — the start of CBS’ continuous coverage of the march at 1:30 Eastern time, and the first half-hour of NBC’s 4:30 summary of the day’s events.

Read Part I here.

The Aug. 25, 1963 telecast of  NBC’s “Meet The Press” made plain the conventional fears many white Americans had about the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom, coming up in three days. NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were the guests that Sunday evening, and “Meet The Press” co-creator Lawrence Spivak began the questioning.

 

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Two things strike me about this excerpt from the beginning of the program.

1) Spivak’s reference to “10,000 militant negroes” and whether or not they could come together without rioting. Aside from the low estimate of a crowd that ended up exceeding 250,000, the notion that the entire contingent would be militant, and that it might be incapable of civilized behavior, is one that would be just as likely to be brought up today, especially on outlets like Fox News.

2) Wilkins, who is clearly aggravated by Spivak’s repeated questions about the “great risks” the march’s organizers are taking, makes it clear that he’s bemused by the turnout estimate, saying he doesn’t know if it’ll be “110,000, 145,000 or 190,000.” I’m sure he knew the number would be closer to the actual total.

The entire program,which was re-aired on many NBC stations on Sunday, is worth seeing, even if only to see how these distinguished black leaders control their anger when reporters question the wisdom of the march and the entire direction of The Movement. King is asked about the Communist ties of Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March, forcing him into the uncomfortable position of  either having to speculate about Rustin’s affiliations or deflecting the question by pointing out its irrelevance. NBC News reporter Robert MacNeil, later the co-founder of the “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour,”  irritates Wilkins by pressing him on the possibility of violence, as does Spivak when his turn comes up again. King is asked, inevitably, if it isn’t a better idea to proceed more slowly in the pursuit of civil rights for African Americans. 1

CBS, NBC and ABC present a special report: The March On Washington

The networks readied themselves for the events of Aug. 28, as the march, originally planned as a demand for better jobs and economic opportunity for African Americans, had evolved into a demonstration in support of the civil rights bill President Kennedy had proposed in June, legislation that ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Variety described it as, “logistically … a Cape Canaveral moon shot, an Inauguration Day and an Election Night bundled into one and topped off by a total measure of unpredictability.” 2

NBC’s Martin Agronsky reports from the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963. (From the Don West Broadcasting and Cable Photo Archive)

A pool of 28 cameras was placed along the parade route, at the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House and the Capitol. CBS  acted as pool agent, with CBS News producer Art Kane in charge. Separately, CBS was responsible for coverage at the Lincoln Memorial, ABC took command at the Monument, and the Constitution Ave. parade route was handled by NBC’s team. In addition to the pool, the networks had 15 additional cameras at various points. Each network deployed its entire Washington bureau to cover the March, with assistance from New York-based personnel who flew in for the occasion.3

Dr. Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph, Urban League head Whitney M. Young Jr. and other civil rights luminaries arrive at the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom, in this clip from the network pool coverage.

The day’s coverage began at 8:30 Eastern time with NBC’s “Today” show, which aired a 30-minute segment hosted by Martin Agronsky. At 9:30, during a time period reserved for local programming on NBC stations, the network ran a five-minute update on the march, followed by another at 10:30 before the game show “Play Your Hunch.” More updates were seen at 11:30 and 2 p.m., and NBC would summarize the march’s highlights in a two-hour special at 4:30 Eastern. 4

ABC, which started its reportage on the event at 9:30 a.m. and offered half-hour updates at noon, 2 p.m. and 4:30, scored an interview with author James Baldwin, who had already written “The Fire Next Time” and met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy earlier in the summer in a high-profile summit to discuss race in the U.S. The network also pulled Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) aside for an interview.5

CBS began its reporting on the march with “Calendar,” its half-hour infotainment show that aired each weekday at 10 a.m. Hosted by newsman Harry Reasoner and actress Mary Fickett, “Calendar” was nearing the end of its two-year network run, and for Variety reporter Bill Greeley, summing up the March On Washington coverage for the trade magazine’s Sept. 4 edition, the program was out of its depth on one of the biggest stories of the summer. “Miss Fickett seemed to think she was at some kind of a fashion outing,” Greeley wrote, “and the whole half hour had the air of unfitting flippancy.”6

CBS begins its continuous coverage

As the march began, CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd anchored this special report, with assistance from reporter Dave Dugan, who offers some interesting observations about the marchers.

CBS made the smartest decision among the networks by airing continuous coverage from 1:30 to 4:30 Eastern, capturing King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” which ended the program; an now-unjustly overlooked address by A. Phillip Randolph, and other highlights live, “clearly TV attractions to murder the fun and games underway on NBC and ABC,” Variety’s Greeley sneered.7

ABC went ahead with most of its daily slate of “Jane Wyman Presents,” the game shows “Queen For A Day” and “Who Do You Trust,” and Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” NBC presented “Loretta Young Theater,” along with game shows “People Will Talk,” “Match Game” and “You Don’t Say.”

Via the Telstar communications satellite, European viewers also watched the march coverage, either live or on tape delay. “Coverage rivaled astronaut launchings,” the New York Times reported in its Aug. 29 editions. “…To some European viewers the good-natured mood of the Washington marchers and the apparent low-key atmosphere of the protest early in the day might have provided a contrasting picture to the one usually associated here with Negro protest in the United States.”8 Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.) went a step further, complaining that Europeans would be “misled” by the march footage into thinking that “Negroes in the United States have no freedom.”

NBC’s 4:30 p.m. ET recap

Though so much of the videotaped news, sports and other kinds of programming from this era were erased, NBC managed to preserve its 4:30 p.m. wrap-up of the day’s events, hosted by Frank McGee, with reports from correspondents Sander Vanocur, Martin Agronsky, Ray Scherer, Bryson Rash and Robert Abernethy. At this point, the marchers were headed home, and the event’s leaders were headed to the White House for a 5 p.m. meeting with President Kennedy.

At 14:45 on this excerpt from that broadcast, Scherer interviews comedian and activist Dick Gregory. (By the way — ignore the time stamp that can be seen ticking in the upper left-hand corner; this was seen at 4:30 Eastern time that day, as McGee mentions at one point that the Kennedy meeting is only “10 or 11 minutes from now.”)

 

Film actor Burt Lancaster addresses the gathering in this clip from the pool coverage.

Between 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., the A.C. Nielsen Co. reported that 46% more television homes were watching television than had been watching on Aug. 21 — 1.03 million households vs. 708,000 a week earlier.9

CBS, with its three-hour block of live coverage, garnered the highest ratings among the Big Three, with a 40.7 share between 1:30 and 4:30, compared with a 19.5 for NBC and an 11.3 for ABC.10

CBS used its 7:30 Eastern “CBS Reports” time slot to air an hour-long review of the march, the only primetime offering on the demonstration. Hosted by Walter Cronkite, the special generated a 12 rating in the New York market, according to A.C. Nielsen’s overnight measurement, an effective showing against NBC’s “The Virginian,” which got a 13, and “Wagon Train” on ABC (12.9). The entertainment shows were both reruns.11

Chicago Tribune television critic Larry Wolters said that on TV, the event came across as “less a march than a gay holiday affair. There was much singing, chanting and music.”12

The New York Times’ Val Adams also sensed that the networks were content to play up the more overtly entertaining aspects of the march, rushing to do interviews with Hollywood celebrities, such as Burt Lancaster.13

Variety’s Greeley, despite a few complaints, said the networks provided “great coverage of a great event in American history.”14

Television had begun to realize its unique power as a medium. Live TV shots had an immediacy that could not be replicated by film, and now that videotape was in common use, you could see the drama of those images as they had been shot, a vast improvement over the poor quality of kinescopes.

On Sept. 2, CBS expanded its evening news broadcast from 15 minutes to 30, and NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” followed a week later. Reveal Shot will take a closer look at those programs, as well as NBC’s “American Revolution of ’63” documentary, in later posts.

— David B. Wilkerson

 

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  1. “Meet The Press,” Sunday, Sept. 25, 1963, NBC, 6 p.m. Eastern time.  
  2. “TV’s Unprecedented Alert As 150,000 Civil Rights Advocates March On D.C.,” by Mike Mosettig, Weekly Variety, Aug. 28, 1963, pg. 27.  
  3. Ibid, pg. 27.  
  4. The Expanding Vista: American Television In The Kennedy Years, by Mary Ann Watson. Duke University Press, 1990. Pg. 108.  
  5. “TV’s ‘Great Coverage of Great Event’ Citation on D.C. March,” by Bill Greeley,Weekly Variety, Sept. 4, 1963, pg. 25.  
  6. Weekly Variety, Sept. 4, 1963, pg. 25.  
  7. Weekly Variety, Sept. 4, 1963, pg. 35.  
  8. “Europeans View the March on TV,” New York Times, Aug. 29, 1963.  
  9. “TV: Coverage of March,” by Val Adams, New York Times, Aug. 29, 1963.  
  10. Weekly Variety, Sept. 4, 1963, pg. 35.  
  11. Weekly Variety, Sept. 4, 1963, pg. 35.  
  12. “Rights March Calls Out Huge TV Army,” by Larry Wolters, Chicago Tribune, Aug. 29, 1963, pg. B8.  
  13. “TV: Coverage of March,” by Val Adams, New York Times, Aug. 29, 1963.  
  14. Weekly Variety, Sept. 4, 1963, pg. 35.  

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