Network television news programs have brought reports and pictures of news events, mundane and catastrophic, into American homes for little less than three-quarters of a century—not a particularly long time as history goes, but long enough for the medium to have spun a history of its own. It is one that has been told by a number of writers over the years, largely by television insiders—former producers, anchors and reporters—but also by academics. Charles L. Ponce de Leon is an associate professor of history and American studies at California State University, Long Beach. His comprehensive That’s the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America is a narrative history for a broad audience, he tells his readers, and he mined many of those earlier sources in writing it. The result is a readable recounting of the growth of the television news industry.
Much of his book deals with the struggles of each network to attract the largest audiences in order to win the greatest share of advertiser dollars— by shuffling anchors and news executives and, on occasion, even changing the types of stories considered to be news. Ponce deLeon’s central focus is on the evening news programs, beginning in 1944, when CBS inaugurated a 15-minute broadcast on Tuesday and Friday evenings, the only hours the fledgling network was on the air. NBC followed with a similar program on Sunday nights. Both programs were heavily “tell,” with anchors reading the news; the “vision” was provided by newsreels of the sort the audience had been accustomed to seeing between feature films in movie houses. Those pioneering news programs had few viewers; television began its growth only after World War II when receiving sets at affordable prices became available, local stations went on the air and technological advances allowed television signals to reach from New York up and down the East Coast and then across the country.
Readers of an advanced age may recall, as this reader can, watching John Cameron Swayze, anchor of the Camel News Caravan, smoking a cigarette as he told viewers of the events of the day. He was the first of a now-long list of network anchors de Leon conjures up. That term “anchor,” by the way, was first applied by Sig Mickelson of CBS News to describe Walter Cronkite’s role in synthesizing items from floor reporters at the 1952 national political conventions, deLeon writes; other sources, however, attribute the term’s first use to other broadcasters.
NBC replaced the Camel News Caravan with the Huntley-Brinkley Report after the 1956 conventions. Chet Huntley reported from New York and David Brinkley from Washington, D.C. CBS provided them with strong competition from Walter Cronkite after 1961, when Cronkite took over CBS Evening News. Critics occasionally complain that television news and public affairs programming degenerated over time into “infotainment” to draw viewers, but de Leon maintains that infotainment was there at the beginning. Consider—extreme example though it may—NBC’s Today, a morning program of news, weather and entertainment, which featured a chimpanzee, J. Fred Muggs, along with the human cast. Viewers in mid-century also saw the beginnings of serious news/public affairs programs when Edward R. Murrow, who had gained fame during the pre-war and war years for his reporting from London for CBS radio, joined with producer Fred Friendly to develop the radio program Hear It Now, a mix of recorded events and interviews. So successful was the format that they adapted it for television the following year as See it Now. While the program drew solid audiences, advertisers shivered when topics were controversial, and CBS executives dropped it. More acceptable to both was Murrow’s subsequent Person to Person, on which he interviewed celebrities. Later in a widely quoted speech to the Radio Television News Directors Association, Murrow would express his frustration with what he saw as the networks’ overwhelming concern with garnering advertising income while failing to enable the medium to live up to its potential and responsibility to keep the public fully informed of public affairs. In a later television era, one of stronger oversight of stations by the Federal Communications Commission, that would change for the better.
De Leon also points to technological developments—program delivery by cable, microwave and satellite—as providing a wider swath of the public with a greater variety of news programming and with a degree of immediacy unknown by earlier generations. He especially lauds the advances provided by Brian Lamb’s Cable Satellite Network (C-SPAN) and Ted Turner’s Cable News Network (CNN). While Turner is most often credited with CNN’s success, de Leon notes that Turner had the good fortune to hire a veteran United Press International editor, Reese Schonfeld, who had headed UPI Television News. Schonfeld and a staff of long-time news executives designed the CNN format to allow viewers to get news and news features at any time, not just at the dinner hour. In response, network news executives were forced to make changes to remain in competition.
If That’s The Way It Is has a fault as a history, it is its lengthy and, to this reader, disproportionately detailed description and critique of the current state of broadcast news. All told, however, the work is a solid contribution to our knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the broadcast news industry and the role it has played in American public affairs.