COMMENTARY BY P.J. BEDNARSKI

CBS Remembers, And Relives, 50 Years Ago

Starting this afternoon at 1:38 p.m. ET, CBSNews.com will begin streaming the same coverage CBS aired at that exact moment in 1963 and continue streaming it through JFK's funeral on the following Monday, just as it happened 50 years ago on a Friday. This is as close to reliving the media event as it can be — kind of real-time coverage, 50 years later. I can’t recall an instance of this kind of echo chamber — a media event about a media event, extraordinary in itself. 

In the mini-deluge of commemorative specials revolving around the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, it seems odd to me that so little notice is being paid to CBSNews.com’s plans.

Starting this afternoon at 1:38 p.m. ET, the website will begin streaming the same coverage it aired, also at that exact moment, in 1963 and continue streaming it through the Monday funeral, just as it happened 50 years ago on a Friday.

This is as close to reliving the media event as it can be — kind of real-time coverage, 50 years later. I can’t recall an instance of this kind of echo chamber — a media event about a media event, extraordinary in itself.  

If you don’t want to watch much of it in real time, CBS will have a schedule on the website that will let viewers know when some specific events will be streamed, and will live-Tweet what’s happening. Also important moments from the original broadcast will be available on-demand on the website, and will be shared on the CBS News accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #JFK50.

But watching it again, as it happened — hours and hours of it — seems so different in its 20th Century see-it-now, untech-savvy clunkiness.

By now, everyone has seemed to have seen footage of the moment when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite announced that Kennedy was indeed dead. Cronkite read: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time,’  2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.’ ” But he had been on the air for a while with other reports, from a young Dan Rather for one, that reported sources that were unofficially saying the same thing, before the official word came down.  

BRAND CONNECTIONS

The Kennedy assassination was a pivot point for this nation, like the televised debates with Nixon were, like his election was. For television, it was an early indicator of the power of television to gather us together. The nation mourned, on TV. Never had the emotional power of the medium been so put on display. 

Strictly as TV, the assassination coverage replay on CBSNews.com will certainly have the moments we all remember or have learned about — Cronkite seemingly wiping away a tear, the live coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald, on his way to being transferred to another Dallas facility, gunned down by Jack Ruby, and the solemn funeral, with little John-John’s salute to the casket.

But there was a lot more, and that was at a time the TV industry had not yet cultivated anything like the bunch of experts and pundits the cable news industry created. Nor was it so easy for TV to go live. This was before satellites were used to deliver the news. This truly was TV on the fly, and frankly, I can’t remember how the networks filled it up the time when nothing particularly newsworthy was happening.

Nor was TV, or TV news, a 24/7 proposition. Television signed off, sometime after midnight or 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. in most places as it did right into 1980s on some stations.

That’s true with this CBSNews.com coverage too. There will be times that it’s coverage isn’t there. That was the way it was, as Cronkite might put it.

What I remember is that the networks unspooled documentaries and long reports created earlier, about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis and Jacqueline Kennedy’s tour of the White House. We got more information about this Lee Harvey Oswald monster. Who was he? 

I remember I watched everything, just everything, on those days. More likely, I missed most of it. I was 11 years old.

I knew what was going on was momentous. People I knew just cried. The radio stations that usually played rock ‘n’ roll were playing classical music, every one of them, nothing but.

But I’d bet that through the entire weekend neither CBS nor NBC or ABC presented even one child psychologist with careful advice about how parents explain Kennedy’s assassination to young minds. I could have used a little of that, probably. After Oswald was murdered, I remember fearing — seriously — that someone would then kill Ruby. And on and on until somehow all the killing stopped.

It’s impossible to feel all of that fear and regret again. We now have a more jaundiced view of Kennedy than the mourning anchors did that weekend, and we’re plenty accustomed to assassination and senseless, crazed-gunman violence. But if you are a Boomer who remembers, or a Millennial who doesn’t, it would seem the CBSNews.com event will be worth several hours of your time this weekend.

 P.J. Bednarski is a long-time TV critic and media reporter who was a top editor at Electronic Media and B&C. A version of this piece appeared originally on TVWorthWatching.com.


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Cheryl Daly says:

November 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm

There is precedent for showing uninterrupted network coverage in real time. Back in 1988 on the twenty-fifth anniversary, the A&E cable network played NBC News’ continuous coverage starting with the first bulletin at the same time of day that it originally aired. If memory serves, A&E played NBC’s entire reporting for all of Friday, November 22, 1963, and they may have ran the full four days of coverage right through the funeral on Monday. In 1988, I think that NBC owned a piece of A&E.


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