My thoughts on the JFK assassination anniversary, part 1

This November brings two important 50th anniversaries. One of those anniversaries commemorates an event that went unnoticed in the US at the time, the debut of the British science-fiction program Doctor Who. I’ll talk about that anniversary another time. The program wouldn’t make a big splash over here until the late 1970’s, but even if it had been scheduled to debut in the US at the same time as in the UK, it wouldn’t have. Its debut would have been postponed because of the news coverage of the other big event from November 1963. I am referring, of course, to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In the latter part of November 1963 I was 5 1/2 months old, far too young to remember anything on my own. My “memories” were received from my mother. On November 22, around the noon hour, we were at home at our apartment in Pasadena, Texas. It would have been near lunchtime, so I would imagine that my mother prepared a bottle for me; I’m not sure what she would have prepared for herself. At 12:30, she turned on the TV to channel 11 (CBS) and As The World Turns to have it in the background while she did her housework. Perhaps she was compiling the ingredients for that night’s supper, a dish called skillet macaroni (elbow macaroni, ground beef, tomato sauce and tomato chunks, chopped green peppers and onions). If I wasn’t being fed, I would probably have been in the playpen or my crib. Was I awake? There’s no way to know for sure. When the first bulletins came in, my mom was startled and shocked. Who wouldn’t have been? Not counting those too young to have been, like I was. Would I have noticed that something was out of the ordinary with her? Would she have given me tighter hugs than usual that afternoon? Perhaps; there’s no way to know now, for she passed away in 1994.

Nearly all of us are now familiar with the now-iconic moment when Walter Cronkite read the AP flash announcing the president’s death. With its being repeated so often over the years, it has become the “official” announcement of Kennedy’s death. On the 25th anniversary of the assassination, CBS aired a two-hour special on its coverage of the assassination; I wonder if it is planning anything similar for the 50th anniversary? I wouldn’t be surprised if CBS (or NBC or ABC, for that matter) mounted a webcast of its coverage, airing it to the minute as it happened 50 years ago (CBS is indeed going to stream its coverage).

The first 30 minutes of CBS’s coverage (the start of As The World Turns and the yielding to continuous coverage) is available on the Internet — perhaps not entirely legally, but it is nonetheless available. I’ve watched that video, and I am struck by two things: one, how the network didn’t immediately go to continuous coverage (although nearly ten minutes later, it did); and two, how the first few minutes of the coverage was audio only, with the only visual being a slide saying “CBS News Bulletin”. That was due to technical limitations; the TV cameras of the time took several minutes to warm up, and CBS didn’t have its newsroom camera warmed up and ready for use until 1PM Central time. Getting back to  the first few minutes of the coverage, the initial bulletin at 10 minutes into the show ran for one minute before returning to a commercial for Nescafé coffee and a station break. There was a promo for that night’s scheduled episode of Route 66; as events developed, it would not air that evening but would be pushed back one week. The return from the station break was interrupted by a second bulletin that ran for 2 1/2 minutes. At its conclusion, As The World Turns resumed with a scene already in progress (whether the episode was live or on tape, I don’t know). Around 12:47 Central time, the announcer said “We’ll return to As The World Turns in just a moment”, and commercials for Friskies Puppy Food and Friskies Magic Sauce Cubes followed. But the announcer was wrong; As The World Turns did not return. The second commercial was interrupted by the third bulletin, and continuous news coverage began at that point. That bulletin lasted for 13 minutes, up to the top of the hour, at which point the camera was ready.

I think I’ll have more to say on this in a future post.