An Abridged History of Network Television News

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As many of you probably know, TV network news was really just a progression of radio news.  In the early 1940s, both NBC and CBS-both syndicated radio stations-began network television programming.  In the late 1940’s, ABC, developed from the forcible split of two NBC radio stations, started its television network.

So what makes a network? Essentially, it is a central organization the produces content-in this case television programming, for distribution.  The three main networks in the USA are ABC, NBC and CBS.

In the early days of tv news, the quality and technology did not really allow for much.  The first broadcasts were weekly, 10 minute programs, like the Camel Newsreel Theater on NBC, which began airing in February 1948.   For this show, an off screen commentator, John Cameron Swayze, read the news, while a newsreel played on screen.  By August 1948, CBS had taken that into a new direction with its 15 minute, weekday news program, CBS TV-News, hosted by Douglas Edwards.

ABC followed suite in 1949 when it started production of as nightly news program.  It was third place in the ratings.

Some of the most notable early TV news anchors were Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of the Huntley Brinkley Report on NBC, Douglas Edwards of CBS Television News, and John Daly of John Daly and the News on ABC.

These men were the pioneer news-anchors.  Douglas Edwards and CBS, for example, were the first to report from national political conventions.  But they tend to be somewhat overshadowed by the two CBS-news greats: Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

Murrow rose to fame with his famous reporting for CBS radio during World War II during the London Blitzkrieg  and later on a program called “Hear it Now” in 1950.  He began reporting on television for the news series, “See it Now” in 19 The show was a half hour long and began airing in 1951.  His most famous “See it Now” broadcast was an expose of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the “Red Scare”.

In 1953, Murrow became the host of yet another CBS program, “Person to Person”, the first celebrity interview show.  Murrow would film a segment in the homes and private lives of the famous.  The show was recently brought back to life by CBS.

But no American TV news anchor is quite as well-known or respected as Walter Cronkite.  His signature line, “And that’s the way it is” says almost everything one would need to know.  His word was gospel, and widely trusted.  American’s had nothing but faith in the man. To such a degree that when he reported on the Vietnam war, Lyndon B. Johnson is known to have said something along the lines of, “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the war.” (Although, to be fair, there is some reason to doubt that this statement actually occurred.)

Cronkite began broadcasting on CBS for the CBS Nightly News in 1962 as Douglas Edwards’ replacement. By 1967, Cronkite brought CBS to be the ratings leader in nightly news broadcasts, beating out NBC for the first time.

Since those days, not only the quality of the news, but the quantity of the news, has gone up.  In the 60s the technology began to improve exponentially.  Soon there was a shift to color news reel, and the ability to broadcast live was suddenly there. In the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy, the networks cancelled their regular programming in order to broadcast live the reactions of the people.

In the 60s, the networks started their switch to a 30-minute broadcast format.  CBS was first in the switch 1963 shortly followed by NBC.  ABC switched in 1967.

By the 1980’s all three networks started using mobile satellites to more quickly and efficiently broadcast live from remote locations.

When CNN began its run the networks took a hit.  Suddenly news was available 24/7, but it began a new era of news.  The networks started to produce more news shows, like early morning and late night, in order to compete with CNN.

But still, nightly news reigns supreme as far as journalism goes.  Now, the nightly news landscape looks somewhat different.  Two of the anchors of nightly news have been winners of the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism: Diane Sawyer of ABC World News and Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News.  Scott Pelley, of CBS Nightly News, has won many awards for journalism excellence, as well as an Emmy

One Comment on “An Abridged History of Network Television News”

  1. I would point out that the broadcast Walter Cronkite anchored was (and still is) “The CBS Evening News,” and the predecessor broadcast was “Douglas Edwards and the News,” not what the author listed.

    NBC was and is the home of the “NBC Nightly News.” And NBC had three newsreel-based programs: The “NBC Television Newsreel” was succeeded by the “Camel Newsreel Theater” and then the “Camel News Caravan.”

    Ed Murrow’s CBS broadcast “Person to Person” was not FILMED. It was broadcast LIVE to the east coast using television cameras and some rather elaborate configurations of microwave links to telco lines in order to get the audio and video signals back to CBS Television Network facilities in New York City. (Researching a post about the technology used in “P to P” is how I ran across this page in the first place.)

    With such well known broadcasts involved, it’s difficult to understand how these errors occurred.

    It would be useful for the writer to explain (and understand) how the error occurred, and for that explanation (and correction note) to be posted on the site.

    With all due respect, errors such as this compromise the reader’s trust in the accuracy of the article in which the error was found, other articles by the same writer, and the editing process by which problems such as this are caught and corrected before publication. (“If he/she made this kind of easy to spot error… what other goofs are lurking in the text, yet to be discovered.”)

    If there is no oversight by professorial staff—especially ones that grew up with these broadcasts each evening—there should be. The “institutional memory” can be helpful in catching this type of inaccuracy, and ensuring that the journalistic goals of accurate reportage are taught and practiced in university settings such as this on-line publication.

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