Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


How The JFK Assassination Changed TV News

I’m old enough to remember exactly where I was 50 years ago today. I was in grammar school, Annunciation School on Havemeyer Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. Our principal, Sister Mary Dominic, in her full habit, literally ran into our classroom and got our teacher out into the hall. We knew it was important because our principal never ran anywhere.

After much commotion, our teacher, Sister Mary Christine, told us that the president had been shot. We weren’t told, or we didn’t know yet, that he had died. Everyone at school was allowed to go home. I remember walking home with two friends of mine, and one of us theorized that the Russians could have done it (an original conspiracy theorist I suppose) and wondered if this could be the beginning of a war.

Such was the tenor of the times that grade-school kids would be able to think of such things.

Coverage of the anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy changed TV news, and it changed where Americans would turn to get breaking news.

Back then there was local news at 6 p.m. and maybe at 11 p.m. if your area was lucky. I grew up in New York and we had six local stations with WNET — which became part of PBS later on in the decade — just beginning.

Network news was a half-hour a night starting at 7 p.m. from the three major networks: ABC, CBS and NBC.

Network news was a headline service. Major news was reported by local newspapers, and in New York we had seven major daily newspapers back then.

Coverage of reaction to the tragic events that day from the news departments of ABC, CBS and NBC was extraordinary for that time. They covered the events from Friday through Monday for its entire broadcast day — usually from 5 or 6 a.m. until 1 a.m. in the morning. The 24/7 TV broadcasting of today wasn’t around then.

I remember witnessing the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby live on Sunday morning, right after my Mom and I came back from Mass. I think it was the only time that weekend I went outside. And I remember so many of the images from the black-and-white videos many of us have seen this week.

For those who lived through those dark days, we will never forget it. For baby boomers like myself, it was a tragic rite of passage, and it changed the way the public wanted and needed to get its news.

Ratings for all three networks during that weekend 50 years ago went through the roof.

As the tumultuous events of the 1960s unfolded, they would be reported first, and many times in detail, via television. The Space Race. Vietnam. Civil Rights protests. War protests. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The moon landing. All garnered major ratings.

Network TV news executives wanted nightly news programs to go to an hour, but network owners resisted. Those same news departments had figured out how to cover major stories for hours on end and keep a large audience.

So when Ted Turner came along with the money, opportunity and guts to create CNN back in 1980, it wasn’t a brand-new idea.

In today’s connected world, news is sometimes posted almost too quickly, due to the competition for eyeballs and the voracious hunger for info. But that habit of wanting to get news where you want it, when you want it, and seeing it via video with your own eyes and ears got a tremendous boost based on the tragic events that happened 50 years ago today.