August 3, 2016

1953. CBS and NBC Race to Cover the Queen's Coronation

Televising the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
"Queen Elizabeth II poses in her coronation attire in the throne room of Buckingham Palace in London, after her coronation, June 2, 1953" (source)
From The New Yorker, June 13, 1953, pp. 107-110:

Television: The Queen

By Philip Hamburger
A few minutes before 5:15 a.m. DST, on Coronation Day (10:15 a.m. British Summer Time), I rose, drank a toast of tomato juice and coffee to the Queen, and padded into the television room to light up the tiny screen. England was about to crown a new monarch, and two of the American networks, NBC and CBS, in a royal frenzy of competition, were about to joust one another to the death in an effort to crown her first.

CBS made the initial lunge at five-fifteen, when a British voice, speaking from London, said that the Queen would not leave the Palace to go to the Abbey for another eleven minutes. The voice was pictorially accompanied by still shots of public buildings in London. A moment later, an extremely wide-awake young man named Allen Jackson appeared before the cameras (he was in New York) and introduced an equally wide-awake young woman from the British Information Services (she was in New York, too). She was wearing a refined afternoon dress, and she expressed the opinion that we were in for a remarkable day.

At 5:26 a.m. DST (10:26 a.m. BST), the overseas British voice announced that the Queen was leaving the Palace and was on her way "to meet the world." I could hear the hoofs of the horses drawing the royal coach, and I could see a still picture of one of the coach's wheels. "She is serene and untroubled," the voice went on. "She is the symbol of all our hopes. The Queen is on her way, and so her journey begins."

At five-thirty, I switched to NBC. Dave Garroway was walking jauntily into the NBC newsroom at Radio City, wearing a bowler and carrying an umbrella, but somehow he didn't look very British. He put both the hat and the umbrella on a coat rack and expressed the opinion that we were in for a remarkable day. He said that NBC had a good many tricks up its sleeve, all right, and suggested that we listen to the BBC broadcast from London. This was promptly piped in, while we were allowed to look at Garroway. The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were drawing up at the Abbey annex, the BBC man said, and then we heard a band playing the British national anthem.

At five-thirty-four, Mr. Garroway, wearing a what-hath-God-wrought expression, announced that, thanks to a facsimile receiver called Mufax, still pictures taken a mere nine minutes before in London would be upon us in a moment, having been miraculously transmitted by radiophoto across the broad stretches of the Atlantic. Sure enough, at 5:35 DST, nine minutes after the Queen had left the Palace at 10:26 BST, a barely distinguishable royal coach, the Queen, and the Duke of Edinburgh appeared before us. Garroway was beside himself, as well as he might have been, I guess. He established contact with a gentleman called Gibson Parker, who was at the transmitting point for the radiophotos, forty miles from London. Mr. Parker asked Mr. Garroway if we could see the Yeomen of the Guard. We could not. "You can see the magnificence of the coach," said Mr. Parker, across the ocean. At this point, someone placed a map of England and Wales before the cameras.

In a matter of minutes, the Mufax picture of the coach, Queen, and Duke was returned to the screen. Simultaneously, Garroway permitted us to listen again to the BBC broadcast. The Queen was passing through Trafalgar Square. Another BBC voice, evidently from within the Abbey, now spoke eloquently of "the stillness of expectancy, the loneliness of dedicated sovereignty." Several more Mufax pictures arrived—crowds outside the Palace, a mounted Guardsman, and so on.

When the Queen reached the Abbey (6 a.m. DST), NBC began, in a sense, to fall apart. It forgot that people might want to hear the ceremony of the Coronation, and concentrated on those Mufax pictures. "Gibson—can you hear me, Gibson?" said someone standing alongside Garroway. "We are looking at A-One—A for Adam—on the Mufax." A man called Romley Wheeler was piped in. He was at Blackbushe Airport and was witnessing the departure of a Canberra jet plane, under NBC charter, which he said would arrive at Boston in about six and a half hours. Garroway announced that NBC had scooped the world—it had laid its dark plans, unbeknownst to CBS, and was dispatching this special plane with the first motion pictures of the day's events. The Coronation itself, I suddenly realized, was proceeding. NBC miracle or no NBC miracle, I switched to CBS.

CBS didn't have Mufax but it did have old still pictures of Coronation scenes, presumably obtained from libraries and files. I could hear the BBC announcer describing the Coronation ceremony, and I could hear the glorious service, the great organ, the massed choir, the unbelievable trumpet flourishes, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Queen. Perhaps this was not precisely television coverage of the Coronation, but it was moving and impressive. From time to time, I switched back to Garroway. He was talking to H. V. (Dean) Kaltenborn, who allowed that the day was a remarkable one, or he was calling for a "recap" of the Mufax stills. For the remainder of the service, I stayed with CBS.

About 4 p.m., both NBC and CBS reached new heights of frenzy. The NBC Canberra jet had developed engine trouble over the Atlantic and had been forced to turn back, but Royal Air Force planes had brought pictures to Goose Bay, Labrador, from which point both CBS and NBC were flying them to Logan Airport, in Boston, in souped-up P-51 Mustangs. Both networks had set up shop at Logan Airport, and both networks expected their planes to arrive shortly.

"Joe DeBona in his souped-up CBS P-51 Mustang is now flying over Bangor at an altitude of twenty-two thousand feet and four hundred and twenty-five miles per hour," said Bill Downs of CBS. He was on a runway at Logan, scanning the sky. On NBC, Ben Grauer, also standing on a Logan runway, said that Stanley Reaver, in his souped-up NBC P-51 Mustang, would arrive in about forty-five minutes. CBS hung around the airport waiting for DeBona. NBC, happily, went up to Ottawa and looked in on a Dominion audience in front of the Canadian Houses of Parliament listening to the Queen's speech. It was followed by a call, from an elegant, bemedalled antique, for three cheers for the Queen. "Hip, Hip, Hip!" he cried.

At four-twelve, back on CBS, Joe DeBona zoomed over Logan, and at four-thirteen, he landed on the deck. "A clear victory for CBS!" cried Bill Downs, but at four-fourteen (this was a tense time), NBC, having decided that its pilot had lost the race, hooked its network into that of the American Broadcasting Company, which, having rather maturely made no promises and run no races, was transmitting films of the Coronation through an arrangement with the Canadian Broadcasting Company, in Montreal.

The Canadians had clearly won the race. Royal Air Force planes flying to Goose Bay and Royal Canadian Air Force planes flying from Goose Bay to Montreal had brought the first pictures from London. They were the BBC pictures the British had seen that morning on their television sets, and they were the real thing.

For several hours, I watched the ancient service, and my admiration for the cameraman and commentators of the BBC is unbounded. We have a great deal to learn from them, technically and aesthetically. The British had set up their cameras at strategic points along the procession route, and at strategic points in the Abbey. The commentary had dignity and beauty. Every step of the ceremony was explained, every picture was part of the drama, and the cumulative effect was wonderful. As far as I was concerned, this was the Coronation, and when, later in the evening, both CBS and NBC came along with their competitive souped-up versions, complete with exhausted commentators and rude and intrusive commercials, I soon switched them off, drank a Black Velvet to the Queen, and went to bed.