Sunday, November 25, 2007

November 25, 1963:

John Kennedy's Televised Funeral

A great many people lined up to file past the coffin of President Kennedy as he lay in state at the Capitol in late November 1963, and many more saw the precession of his coffin through the streets of Washington DC, but vastly more people only saw the event on television. It was the first such sombre spectacle of its kind, so far (fortunately) still unique in presidential, as well as broadcast history.

The Museum of Broadcast History tells a little of the story: "The next day -- Monday, 25 November a National Day of Mourning -- bears witness to an extraordinary political-religious spectacle: the ceremonial transfer of the president's coffin by caisson from the Capitol rotunda to St. Matthews Cathedral, where the funeral mass is to be celebrated by Richard Cardinal Cushing, and on across the Potomac River for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Television coverage begins at 7:00 A.M. EST with scenes from DC, where all evening mourners have been filing past the coffin in the Capitol rotunda. At 10:38 A.M. the coffin is placed on the caisson for the procession to St. Matthews Cathedral.

"Television imprints a series of memorable snapshot images. During the mass, as the phrase from the president's first inaugural address comes through loudspeakers ('Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country'), cameras dissolve to a shot of the flag draped coffin. No sooner do commentators remind viewers that this day marks the president's son's third birthday, then outside the church, as the caisson passes by, little John F. Kennedy, Jr. salutes. The spirited stallion Black Jack, a riderless steed with boots pointed backwards in the stirrup, kicks up defiantly. Awed by the regal solemnity, network commentators are quiet and restrained, allowing the medium of the moving image to record a series of eloquent sounds: drums and bagpipes, hoofbeats, the cadenced steps of the honor guard, and, at the burial at Arlington, the final sour note of a bugle playing 'Taps.'

"The quiet power of the spectacle is a masterpiece of televisual choreography. Besides maintaining their own cameras and crews, each of the networks contributes cameras for pool coverage. CBS's Arthur Kane is assigned the task of directing the coverage of the procession and funeral, coordinating over 60 cameras stationed strategically along the route. NBC takes charge of feeding the signal via relay communications satellite to twenty-three countries around the globe. Even the Soviet Union, in a broadcasting first, uses a five-minute news report sent via Telestar. CBS estimated 50 engineers worked on the project and NBC 60, while ABC put its total staff at 138. Unlike the fast breaking news from Dallas on Friday and Sunday, the coverage of a stationary, scheduled event built on the acquired expertise of network journalism.

"The colossal achievement came with a hefty price tag. Trade figures estimated the total cost to the networks at $40 million, with some $22,000,000 lost in programming and commercial revenue over the four days. Ironically, the one time none of the networks cared about ratings, the television audience was massive. Though multi-city Nielsens for prime time hours during the Black Weekend were calculated modestly (NBC at 24, CBS at 16, and ABC at 10), during intervals of peak viewership -- as when the news of Oswald's murder struck -- Nielsen estimated that fully 93% of televisions in the nation were tuned to the coverage."

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