Reveal Shot begins an examination of the 1963-64 television season, which of course began 50 years ago this month. It was a year that saw the medium make great strides in news and entertainment, and one in which several long-running programs distinguished themselves.
As mentioned in our posts on network television coverage of the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom, which had taken place days earlier (Read Parts I and II [now updated]), TV news was beginning to have real confidence in itself as a medium for news. On a nightly basis, it couldn’t offer depth, the way newspapers and magazines could, but the power of televised pictures coming into people’s living rooms — especially with the uniquely immediate look of live or videotaped footage, — had an impact nothing else could match, a kind of urgency that, in the right hands, could be a stunning force.
In his Feb. 6, 1963 column, UPI television critic Rick DuBrow lamented that several weekly documentary shows and other news and public affairs programs were either leaving the airwaves or being reduced to monthly broadcasts. He noted that CBS was canceling “Eyewitness,” a round-up of the previous week’s events and a look ahead to items of note in coming days, while NBC was going to curtail “Chet Huntley Reporting” and “David Brinkley’s Journal” to once a month in the 1963-64 season.
Both moves were being made, DuBrow reported, because CBS, and then NBC, intended to expand their nightly newscasts to 30 minutes from 15 minutes. “The expansion of the key daily news reports certainly is a fine thing,” the critic said, but he added: “Daily news reports, even expanded, are still pretty much outlines of top stories … When top informational programs are chopped, when programs like ‘Discovery ’63’ and ‘Calendar’ have a tough time staying on, something is wrong. Except for news and public affairs presentations, there is really very little to even justify the existence of television.”1
Undaunted by such a pessimistic view, the networks moved forward with their plans. Here we’ll see how CBS News President Dick Salant, network president Frank Stanton and founder William S. Paley were able to convince CBS stations around the country to go along with the decision to expand the 15-minute evening newscast to 30 minutes, starting on Sept. 2.
In this clip from the Archive of American Television’s 1999 interview with Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), the “most trusted man in America” explains why the “CBS Evening News” moved to a half hour (6:30-7 p.m. Eastern time), and the peeved reaction of CBS affiliates, which were accustomed to having that time for themselves. He also discusses the scoop he ended up with when he interviewed President John F. Kennedy on that Sept. 2 premiere.
There are two videos here:
Cronkite continues to explain the significance of President Kennedy’s remarks on the early days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Current “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley ended his own newscast Monday night with this look back at the first 30-minute newscast, offering further insight into the logistics, and consequences, of that evening.
NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” followed one week later, which Reveal Shot hopes to explore in more detail Sept. 9.
New York Times television critic Jack Gould, writing for that newspaper’s Sept. 22 edition, was cautious in his early assessments of the new half-hour news programs.
“What remains to be seen,” Gould said, “is whether the added time will be used fruitfully in explaining complex issues that require elucidation or will be given over only to light feature material.
“Random sampling of the programs thus far invites only inconclusive nitpicking and personal preference in the handling of individual stories; the balance sheet is extremely even.”2
— David B. Wilkerson