Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

A Guest in Our Living Room: The Television Newscaster before the Rise of the Dominant Anchor

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

A Guest in Our Living Room: The Television Newscaster before the Rise of the Dominant Anchor

Article excerpt

The changing face of network television news during the past few years has sparked renewed debate on the future of television news. But the death of Peter Jennings as well as the disappearance from the anchor chair by Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather also dredged up off-repeated misconceptions about the birth and early development of television news in this country. David Shaw of The Los Angeles Times warned "the day of the anchor as single 'God-like' voice is over." Marvin Kitman of Newsday scolded the entire industry: "The mistake TV news made from the start was to make the anchor the center of attention, when all they basically did was read the TelePrompTer" (Kitman, 2005, p. C19; Shaw, 2005, p. 31). But the newscaster was not always the center of attention in the early years of television news. Instead, stations experimented with various formats for television news. Some efforts focused on the pictures, much like a theater newsreel, others on maps and graphics. Another approach involved showing the newscaster on camera only when no other visualization methods were available for that specific story or newscast.

This project focuses on one of the most ambitious efforts in visual news during the first decade of commercial television: WCBW, Columbia Broadcasting's television station in New York City. (1) From 1941 until 1948, minus 17 months off the air during the war, the CBS television station struggled with adapting journalism for the small screen. Instead of building a newscast around one of the famous names of CBS radio news, the WCBW crew focused on the content and visualization techniques. The role of the newscaster was constantly debated and revised as at least a dozen people stood in front of the cameras during one 4-year period at CBS-TV. But the WCBW news people did not carry on this debate in a vacuum. They had watched the emergence of the news announcers and commentators on radio. Plus, for decades, media writers and critics had taken part in the social construction of the television announcer by drawing on examples from radio, motion pictures, and other media to predict what type of person would succeed on the new medium.

Television news prior to 1948 has received little more than anecdotal attention, both in academic scholarship and in popular histories, partly because of the lack of a visual record. But the WCBW newscasts of this era can be at least partially reconstructed through surviving historical documents such as rundowns, scripts, artwork, still photographs, company records, personal archives, government reports, period writings, and other historical material. In addition, extensive oral history interviews were conducted with people working at CBS or competing stations during this period.

Television news in this country has not always been built around a popular anchor. The social construction of the television newscaster before widespread adoption of the medium as well as the thoughts, decisions, and processes involved in the 1941 to 1948 CBS-TV newscasts provide a unique glimpse into an important, but overlooked, era of television news before the personality took precedence over the process.

History of Broadcast News

Identifying a news program with the person delivering the information certainly did not start with television. During the first decade of radio broadcasting, the personality became the selling point. As early as 1927, radio stations and networks used the name of the commentator, instead of the topic, in the newspaper listings. Frederick Williams Wile, David Lawrence, and H. V. Kaltenborn became early popular radio commentators. The commentators provided a mix of news, analysis, and opinion, the ratio of that mix depending on the individual. The people who read the newscasts became known as news announcers or news broadcasters (Fang, 1977; Smith, 1965).

The radio commentator became even more important during the fight between newspapers and radio over news. …

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