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The Great Coronation War
In the infancy of television (but not of American royalty-worship) the networks fought their first all-out battle for supremacy over who would get to show Queen Elizabeth II being crowned
December 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 8
When American television was very young, but American royalty-worship was not, the biggest, loudest, most pointless battle for supremacy among the networks was over which would be first—by mere minutes, if necessary—to show pictures of the coronation of the British queen. It was a tale of intrigue and double-dealing, and of such enormous popular interest one wonders how the Founders would have felt, they who had pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to defeat Elizabeth IFs ancestor and rid their country forever of his rule and his heirs.
Americans had always loved Elizabeth, starting with World War II when, even before America’s entry, her father, King George VI, came visiting with his family to make, by symbol rather than overt act or speech, the case for his beleaguered island. When in 1951 George VTs daughter Elizabeth visited Washington with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, President Truman called her a “fairy princess.” Indeed, all America looked on the woman we now know as the troubled materfamilias as a fairy princess, courageous and free of guile. They remembered her from the newsreels, how she had stayed near Eondon with her family during the blitz, while children of the nobility and even the merely well-to-do were shipped to safety in Canada or Australia, and how when she was older she wore her country’s uniform and drove military trucks.
Forty years ago, on June 2, 1953, that same Elizabeth was crowned queen, and American interest boiled over. Live cameras were allowed in Westminster Abbey, and more than twenty million of her subjects saw their monarch as she was crowned. For their part the American television networks, vying to be first with pictures of the coronation, picked it for their first big, brawling, competitive battleground.
Television did not seem primitive at the time, of course, and certainly not to those employed in it. There had been such progress in the five years since American television networks began that those inside the industry lived with a continuous sense of marvel, of discovery upon discovery, and all the discoveries, including some not yet public, would be used to show America the pageantry that had been waiting centuries for television to be invented. To be sure, color television had not yet emerged from the laboratory, and communications satellites were years away. Sending pictures directly across the Atlantic was possible, but only by pre-empting all existing underwater cables at the prohibitive cost, a regretful Postmaster General informed the House of Commons, of forty million dollars. These were nevertheless small deficiencies compared with the marvel that there was television at all. At that time everyone still remembered when there had been none.
Because Americans could not see what was happening in London as it happened, the fight would be over which network would show it first, and only CBS and NBC had the manpower, engineering capacity, and money it would take to play. Still limited and impoverished, with the fewest stars, the weakest stations, the smallest audiences, and, necessarily, the smallest, least aggressive news department, ABC would sit out the heroic struggle.
The pictures themselves would not be on videotape, which was years away, but on sixteen-millimeter film. The film would record the British television coverage and, once it had been somehow transported across the ocean, would accurately, if somewhat smearily, play it back on American television. The race might be decided by minutes.
Unnoticed except for its very last days (when it attracted almost as much press attention as the coronation itself), the contest to show the first television pictures took more than a year. The British Broadcasting Company’s television coverage of George VTs funeral in February 1952 earned the reluctant approval of Britain’s establishment with its decorum and appropriateness and the respectful attention of broadcasting organizations all over the world for its completeness and innovation. The immediate next thought was what “great television” Elizabeth’s coronation would be, if one were allowed in. In the event, one was not allowed in. Only the BBC might cover, but it offered to all free access to its pictures. In fact, the mighty contest between the American networks was to be first to show the BBC’s pictures. That was often lost sight of in the skirmishing.
If thoughts of covering the coronation were immediate, thoughts of battling the other fellow for first place developed more slowly. All through the summer and fall of 1952 the networks and their news divisions were fully occupied with the political conventions and the first Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential campaign. Only with those behind them could executives, still a small group, give coronation coverage the attention it demanded. But from election day, November 4, 1952, to coronation day, on June 2, 1953, there were executives at NBC and CBS who thought of nothing else.