While the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination has inspired much reflection and reexamination of his life, it also gave the TV industry an opportunity to pat itself on the back for how it informed the nation of his death. This year's Emmy Awards even included a tribute to coverage of Kennedy's assassination in it programming, with Don Cheadle calling it "the moment when the television generation came of age."
Though broadcast television news had already been doing some groundbreaking work before Nov. 22, 1963 – from World War II images of London rooftops ablaze to Edward Murrow's takedown of Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s – Kennedy's assassination set a new standard for how breaking national news stories could be delivered on television, at a coverage level that would go unmatched until the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001.
"It accelerated the learning curve and established the norms for how breaking news was going to be covered in the last half of the 20th century and into 21st century," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University.
It was only in September 1963 that networks expanded their nightly news programs from 15 minutes to half-hour long broadcasts. Two months later, CBS aired a special two-hourlong "CBS Evening News" on the Friday after the assassination, and an hourlong broadcast after JFK's funeral that Monday.
Not long after shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, CBS was the first to go live with the news at 12:40 p.m. CT, beating NBC by less than a minute, as recounted by John B. Mayo's 1967 book "Bulletin From Dallas: The President Is From Dead." The network was poised to break into "As The World Turns" to report that Kennedy had been seriously wounded by shots fired at his motorcade, but the CBS cameras were not ready when the first wire reports came in of the shooting. The initial news was read over an image of CBS News placard, making it essentially a radio bulletin. "It taught CBS a lesson: you always need to have a live working camera working in the newsroom," says Alastair Layzell, producer of the PBS documentary, "JFK: One PM Central Standard Time."
By 12:48 p.m. CT, .m. CBS's Walter Cronkite was on camera, followed soon after by NBC and ABC. Cronkite owned the story in part because CBS got out it out first. But getting it right was just as important to Cronkite, according to Douglas Brinkley's 2012 book "Cronkite," and thus he was reluctant to confirm that president was in fact dead, even as other networks and CBS's own correspondent at Parkland Hospital were reporting the shots had been fatal. Cronkite ultimately announced the news when he was passed a report from Dan Rather, the New Orleans bureau chief who had been on the ground in Dallas at the time. Cronkite took off his glasses to underscore the seriousness of the moment, creating an image that would stick in the minds of many viewers forever.
"Walter Cronkite was very good at creating perspective, so even though there was all the clamor to getting the official news out and confirmed by the White House, he was able to set it in context and that was able to give people comfort," Layzell says. Cronkite's coverage of the assassination would reach 23 countries and millions of Americans.
"Once people heard this had happened, they were glued to their televisions because this was definitely not something they had experienced in their lifetimes," says Tevi Troy author of "What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Pop Culture in the White House." Within an hour of the shooting, 68 percent of Americans had heard the news; within two hours, 92 percent had heard, and half of them found out from TV or radio, according to a 1964 study in The Public Opinion Quarterly.
"TV easily eclipsed newspapers that weekend as the main source of information for people as to what was going on," Layzell says.
Not only did news of Kennedy's death reach Americans quickly via their TV screens, it stayed there for the days to come. "While we didn't see the assassination live, the television show about the assassination was a four-day long drama that played on national television," Thompson says. The infamous Zapruder film of the motorcade was not broadcast publicly until 1975, but the four days immediately after the shooting offered plenty of moments that became landmark television events. Cameras were waiting for Air Force One's 5:59 p.m. touchdown in Washington, D.C., with Kennedy's body and the newly sworn in President Lyndon Johnson on board, and they kept rolling throughout the weekend. The Big Three broadcast much of their assassination coverage without commercials. By Mayo's count, CBS clocked in with 55 total hours, ABC played 60 hours and NBC – airing an all-night vigil from the Capitol Rotunda on Sunday – broadcast 71 hours of coverage that weekend.