Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. America and All the Ships at Sea

by John Delach

Part One: Early National News Programs

Recently, I received a semi-desperate call from by oldest grandson seeking help with an assignment about early television.

“Grandpa, the teacher is a jerk. I just took this course to complete the few credits I need to graduate. Turns out it’s mostly freshmen and the jerk is full of his own self-importance. He wants me to interview someone about the early days of TV before cable: Help!”

“Drew, I bet he’s only a couple of years older than you. Do you want to blow his socks off and take TV back to the late 1940s?”

“Sure thing, Gramps. How many TV stations did you get back in the day? Now that I think about it, how did you actually receive the stations?”

“Drew, let me explain by describing the television sets back then. If you had a 12-inch screen, you considered yourself to be lucky. Most were 10-inch and there were even some eight-inch screens. The early sets were built into fancy cabinets, pieces of furniture. In the New York area, we had the choice of seven channels. New York was the media capital of America and all of the national networks were anchored here.

CBS had Channel 2, NBC; 4, ABC; 7 and a fourth network, DuMont, that went out of business in 1956, broadcasted on Channel 5. Three independents; WOR, occupied Channel 9, WPIX, Channel 11 and WNET, a station based in Newark, NJ. on Channel 13 filled out our choices.

Each signal was sent out over the airways by way of Very High Frequency (VHF) communication channels that like radio frequencies were owned by the Federal Government who licensed them out to private broadcasters. I thought about explaining to Drew that VHF signals were similar to radio transmissions, but I also realized he’s never had a radio.

To receive these signals, we had to purchase individual antennas. Metal antennas mounted on the roofs of houses worked best, but for those living in apartment buildings, the only alternative were individual internal antennas that sat on the top of the TV. These devices had two telescoping metal rods that we would raise above the base. Called, “rabbit ears,” we would turn the device and adjust the length of the rods to receive the clearest signal available for that channel.

I explained to Drew just how primitive early television newscasts could be. “One of the early TV newscasters was Walter Winchell, a famous gossip columnist, mud raker and political power broker. Winchell began his broadcasts sitting behind and oversized desk wearing a stylish striped suit, a vest and tie. He wore his trademark fedora tilted to one side in a jaunty fashion.

“In his hands, he held a sheaf of papers and on cue, he looked up at the camera and began his broadcast with: ‘Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.’

A telegraph key was affixed to the right-hand corner his desk and he would announce each new topic by striking the key to make a clicking sound.”

The Networks all seemed to get their act together almost simultaneously in 1948 that saw an explosion of programming that included their first forays into legitimate news reporting.  First up was NBC with its Camel News Caravan starring John Cameron Swayze that presented a 15-minute news show every week day evening.

First launched on Februaray16, 1948, the studio featured Mr. Swayze dressed in a suit sitting behind a large desk, a pencil in his right hand and a sheaf of papers in front of him. Behind him, a cut-out map of the world hung on a wall and at the front end of his desk, his name was set out on raised in blocks flanked on either side by two reproductions of the Camel Cigarette camels.

The sponsor’s name was used repeatedly during the broadcast. Swayze would read the preface for each story, then introduce a local correspondent and send it off to that person who made their report while the film about this story rolled.

A single commercial in the middle of the broadcast featured screen and sport’s celebrities shilling for Camel cigarettes.

NBC was soon followed by CBS who inaugurated CBS Television News featuring Douglas Edwards on May 3, 1948 that also adopted a 15-minute format, five nights a week at 7:30 p.m.

ABC was late to the dance and didn’t become an alternative until late in the 1950s.

NBC re-established their preeminence in 1956 when they completely revamped their evening news format, abandoned a sponsor named broadcast, expanding the format to 30 minutes and replacing Swayze with The Huntley-Brinkley Report -starring Chet Huntley, broadcasting from NBC’s New York H.Q. and David Brinkley in Washington, D.C.

Premiering on October 26, 1956, it blew the socks off of Douglas Edwards. CBS wouldn’t begin to regain ground until 1961 when they replaced Edwards with Walter Cronkite.

I began this piece with the opening to Walter Winchell’s primitive TV news show. I end it with the now famous closing line to The Huntley-Brinkley Report:

 “Good night, Chet. Good night, David. And good night, for NBC News.”