Television of News, Current Events and Politics in the Fifties

The primary sources of news before the Fifties were the radio, newspapers and magazines. To actually “see” an event, people relied on MOVIETONE NEWS, which had cameramen all over the world capturing footage of breaking stories. These news segments played before every movie and were the best way to actually see what went on.

CBS led the way for TV news, inaugurating a fifteen-minute evening news program in 1944. It was broadcast on Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 PM, the two nights of the week the network was on the air. NBC launched its own short Sunday evening newscast in 1945 as the lead-in to its ninety minutes of programming. Both programs resembled the newsreels that were regularly shown in movie theaters

During the later Forties, the networks, in response to booming sales of television sets, expanded their evening schedules to seven days a week and launched regular weeknight newscasts. NBC’s Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze premiered first in February 1948. Sponsored by R. J. Reynolds, the makers of Camel cigarettes, Swayze was required by the tobacco company sponsor to have a burning cigarette always visible when he was on camera. CBS soon followed suit, with the CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards in April 1948.

ABC’s experience with news was frustrating. Its first newscast, News and Views, began airing in August 1948 and was soon canceled. ABC didn’t try another news broadcast until 1952, when it launched an ambitious prime-time news program called ABC All Star News, which combined filmed news reports with man-on-the street interviews, a technique that had been popularized by local stations. By this time, however, the prime-time schedules of all the networks were full of popular entertainment programs, and All Star News failed to attract viewers and was pulled from the air after less than three months.

Besides these daily news broadcasts, TV offered several other news oriented shows during the Fifties that are discussed below. (YouTube contains many historical examples of these shows.)

National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC)

Meet The Press (MTP) was the first show of its kind – live television interviews with panel discussions and analysis. Its debut episode was on November 6, 1947. It ran once a week for 30 minutes until it expanded to one hour in 1992. Originally slotted into a noon timeslot, it began showing at 9:00 am on Sunday morning where it has remained. Martha Rountree served as its first host and has been the program’s only female moderator to date. She stepped down on November 1, 1953, and was succeeded by Ned Brooks, who remained as moderator until his retirement on December 26, 1965. Other MTP hosts/anchors over the years were Lawrence Spivak, Tom Brokow, and Tim Russert. MTP is the longest-running program in television history. ABC tried to compete with Issues and Answers, which ran from 1960-81 and was replaced by the still-running This Week. CBS’ competing offering was Face the Nation, which started in 1954 and is still on the air.

NBC Nightly News hit the TV screen for 15 minutes on February 16, 1948. It remained a fifteen-minute show until September 9, 1963, when it expanded to 30 minutes. It was black and white until 1966, after which it was broadcast in color. Anchors for the Nightly News were John Cameron Swayze (1948-1956), Chet Huntley (1956-1970), and David Brinkley (1956-1979). It started as the Camel Newsreel Theatre, Camel as in the cigarettes. Lasting only ten minutes, the show featured John Cameron Swayze and the Movietone Newsreels. Later it expanded to fifteen minutes, with Swayze narrating the news. In 1954, Camel News Caravan broadcast the first network news show in color, although this did not become a regular feature until 1965. The show expanded from 15 minutes to 30 minutes in 1963.

NBC led television’s coverage of the civil rights movement during the Fifties. In 1955, NBC provided national coverage of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, airing reports from Frank McGee, who was then News Director of NBC’s Montgomery affiliate. In 1956, John Chancellor covered the admission of black students to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The Today Show (aka Today) with host Dave Garroway (1952-61) was the first early morning news oriented show. It debuted on January 14, 1952. Initially, the show ran for two hours from 7:00 a.m.-9:00 a.m. Monday through Friday; later it expanded to three hours. The original team was host Dave Garroway, sports by Jack Lescoulie and Jim Fleming read the news until 1953 when he was replaced by Frank Blair. Early results weren’t promising and the producers decided to make the show more entertaining, by including variety show elements. For example, they added a chimpanzee by the name of J. Fred Muggs, who became a popular co-anchor in his own right. There was no star weather anchor during the 1950s, that function being left to the host. From 1952 to 1964, a notable member of the cast was a woman, often an entertainer, called “the Today Girl.” Usually, she discussed fashion and lifestyle, reported the weather, covered lighter-fare stories or engaged in verbal jousting with Garroway. Estelle Parsons was the first to hold the job, though her title at the time was “Women’s Editor.” Upon Parson’s departure in 1955, the Today Girl name was adopted. Dave Garroway’s signature signoff was “Peace” long before the phrase was co-opted by the Vietnam War protestors. “Today” took viewers to new places, literally pointing cameras at sights never seen before on television and sometimes going on the road to faraway cities like Berlin and Paris. From inception, the show has had plate-glass windows to the streets of New York where fans could peek into the studio, and were often shown in the background of broadcasts. In warmer weather, musical guests often performed on the plaza outside the studio. Today’s accomplishments are many, including longest running daytime series. In 2002, Today was ranked No. 17 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.

Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)

On May 3, 1948, CBS Television News began a regular 15-minute nightly newscast on the CBS television network, with Douglas Edwards as the host. It aired every weeknight at 7:30 p.m., and was the first regularly scheduled network television news program featuring an anchor. The show ran for 15 minutes until September 2, 1963, when it was expanded to 30 minutes. In 1950, the name of the nightly newscast was changed to Douglas Edwards with the News, and the following year, it became the first news program to be broadcast on both coasts, thanks to a new coaxial cable connection, prompting Edwards to use the greeting “Good evening everyone, coast to coast.” CBS also broadcast a recap of the week’s news stories on a Sunday night program titled Newsweek in Review, which was later retitled The Week in Review and the show was moved to Saturdays. Douglas Edwards held onto the anchor spot until 1962, when he was replaced by Walter Cronkite. (1962-1981)

CBS also offered television viewers the first television newsmagazine, See It Now, which premiered on September 11, 1951. Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly were the creators and writers of the 30 minute broadcast, with Murrow playing the host. The show lasted until April 7, 1958. The format of the show included a synopsis of news that was going around the world and in different cities in America. Also, the show often had a section where Murrow and Friendly presented an extended investigative piece on a specific controversial social or political issues. One of the most popular of the See It Now reports was a 1952 broadcast entitled “Christmas in Korea,” when Murrow spoke with American soldiers assigned to the United Nations combat forces.

On March 9, 1954, See It Now and Murrow broadcast an unflattering portrait of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, a member of the Senate Investigation Committee, had launched inquiries regarding potential Communist infiltration in U.S. institutions. Murrow thought that McCarthy’s aggressive tactics were a potential threat to civil liberties. Morrow led off the program with the following introduction: “No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that Congressional committees are useful; it is necessary to investigate before legislating. But the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threats of communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty; we must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of the law.”

His portrait cast the senator from Wisconsin in an unflattering light by pointing out contradictions in his speeches. The show exposed McCarthy as a liar, a hypocrite, and a bully. (There is a more detailed discussion of McCarthyism elsewhere in this Songbook.) The broadcast provoked tens of thousands of letters, telegrams and phone calls to CBS headquarters, running 15 to 1 in favor of Murrow. Friendly later recalled how truck drivers pulled up alongside Murrow and shouted, “Good show, Ed.” This led to such an uproar that McCarthy was formally reprimanded by the U.S. Senate. (Michael J. Friedman, “‘See It Now’: Murrow vs. McCarthy,” in Edward R. Murrow: Journalism at Its Best, publication of U.S. Department of State, June 1, 2008, The following month, on April 22, hearings began regarding McCarthy’s accusations of subversive activity in the army. McCarthy’s charges, which were mostly fabricated, did not hold up to close scrutiny, and the Senate voted to condemn his actions. The ABC network, still without a daytime schedule of programming, was the only network to carry the “Army-McCarthy” hearings in full. The ratings were surprisingly high, and McCarthy’s appearance and mannerisms—seen in the intimate close-ups made possible by television—turned most viewers against the senator.

Face the Nation was a weekly American news and morning public affairs program airing Sundays on the CBS television network. Face the Nation premiered on November 7, 1954, and was originally broadcast on Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. Face the Nation is one of the longest-running news programs in the history of television. The program ran 30 minutes for much of its history. Each Sunday, the program’s moderator interviews newsmakers on the latest political and socioeconomic issues, and delivers a short topical commentary at the end of the broadcast.

American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

ABC began a nightly newscast in the summer of 1948, when H. R. Baukhage and Jim Gibbons hosted News and Views. This was succeeded by After the Deadlines in 1951 and All Star News in 1952. ABC had little success with this nightly news programming. In October 1953, John Charles Daly took over the ABC nightly news chair and stayed there until September 1958. During this time the show was called John Daly and the News. ABC did not have a Sunday Morning news oriented TV show during the 1950s. In 1960, ABC launched its first Sunday talk show Issues and Answers, which featured policy discussions, prior to the age of political pundits dominating the talk shows. Issues and Answers was a once-weekly TV news program that was telecast by the American Broadcasting Company network from November 1960 to November 1981.