Academic journal article Journalism History

The Birth of CBS-TV News: An Ambitious Experiment at the Advent of U.S. Commercial Television

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Birth of CBS-TV News: An Ambitious Experiment at the Advent of U.S. Commercial Television

Article excerpt

Edward R Murrow is often given credit for his groundbreaking television work on see It Now in the mid-1950s, but the birth of CBS-TV news dates back more than a decade before he made the jump from radio to television. At the start of commercial television in July 1941, CBS allowed a small group at its New York City experimental station to develop a format for TV news with little involvement from the exalted CBS Radio news department. The WCBW crew experimented with visual techniques and developed a format for news in two fifteen-minute daily television newscasts until wartime restrictions forced its conception. That experience became invaluable when television news covered its first national crisis, the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, and the 1941-42 WCBW newscasts laid the foundation for newscasts aired even today.

Two different worlds came together in April 1941 when two young employees of the Columbia Broadcasting System met for the first time. In their short broadcasting careers at CBS, Robert Skedgell and Richard Hubbell represented the pinnacle of public adulation and the murky depths of mostly unseen experimental programming for the network.

Skedgell came from the seventeenth floor at 485 Madison Avenue, the nerve center of CBS Radio News, where he had witnessed the transformation of CBS' public affairs broadcasts into a critical news service for the nation. Even though he was only twenty-one years old, he had already worked alongside people such as Robert Trout, H.V. Kaltenborn, and Elmer Davis, who had become important national figures for their reports and commentary on the war in Europe. He also had stood in the office of CBS Dkector of News Paul White and heard the voices of Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, and Eric Sevareid as they called in to New York from across the world as Germany unleashed its hell across Europe.

On the other hand, Hubbell had spent all of his short tenure at CBS in the mysterious television department, working in a vast, open space above the Grand Central Terminal. Even though CBS did not broadcast a television signal during much of this time, the small staff experimented with the video format in anticipation of the day when the government would allow television to join radio as a commercial broadcast service.1

In the spring of 1941, these two men were brought together to create a format for news on the new medium. Hubbell had television experience but had never worked in news, while Skedgell had some radio news experience but did not own a television set. In fact, he had never seen one until that spring. Skedgell wrote the copy while Hubbell presented the news on air. But they were not alone. The television staff played a critical role by helping them prepare the visual elements for the newscast and present it live twice a day.

By entrusting the newscast to this group, the Columbia Broadcasting System made a decision that would influence the template of television news. CBS allowed its experimental television staff to develop a newscast with little involvement from the exalted radio news operation, limited oversight from company management, and no influence from advertisers. Instead of mimicking theater newsreels or radio news-approaches taken by other video pioneers, including NBC-this small group created its own news format. In addition, the CBS television crew learned important lessons on how to handle breaking news on the new medium with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the country's entry into World War II. Thus, the newscasts prepared and presented in 1941-42 by CBS' first commercial television station, WCBW, laid the foundation for today's television newscasts.

For more than forty years, more people in the U.S. have turned to television for their news than any other medium.2 But despite this powerful role in society, little has been written about the origins and early developments of this journalistic source in the period from about 1941 through 1948. …

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