The Great Coronation War

The newsman left for England armed with urgent instructions to find NBC a “secret weapon.”

One of them was Charles H. Colledge, Jr., second-in-command at NBC News. On the Wednesday following election day, he flew from New York’s Idlewild Airport to London. He was very tired. He had had a bad night. He’d been producer of NEC’s electionnight program the night before, and he was not a producer by trade but an accomplished, occasionally brilliant, engineer. For NBC News the whole election year coverage had been something of a disaster. The news division’s management had been completely changed at the end of 1951, and the new head had taken over with six months to go until the national political conventions and no plans made.

Colledge was promoted from chief engineer of NBC’s Washington station to second-in-command of news so that he could take over, but that was not until spring. Improvisation got the conventions covered somehow, but when it came to election night, there was no one around who knew how to put returns on television. NBC News owned no devices to display election results, nor did anyone there know what kinds of devices would work best—or work at all.

Ever the loyal servant, Joe Colledge, as he was known, addressed the task as well as he could. He got a studio designed, a staff assembled, and, to display returns, arranged for several dozen cash registers, two for each state and two for national totals. He masked them in black velvet so only the numbers showed and placed clerks and secretaries to ring up returns as the Associated Press reported them. It did not work very well or look very good. Studio 8-H, which had once been Toscanini’s, resounded with the zing-zing of cash registers. When CBS boasted it would have computer analysis of election returns, by Remington’s UNIVAC, which that night entered the language, Colledge arranged for a calculating device from the Monroe Company, called the Monrobot. The company sent an attractive young woman to explain, on camera, what the device was saying. She was called, inevitably, Marilyn Monrobot.

Not a good night. Despite Eisenhower’s big victory over Stevenson, the coverage, like all general-election broadcasts, had dawdled into the small hours of the morning before it could be wrapped up. Then the high brass descended on Colledge, criticizing everything they had seen. The head of all NBC television, who had made his name as an advertising-agency producer of radio comedy and variety shows, was scathing about NBC News, about the election-night program, about Colledge himself. Colledge lost his temper, and when he finally left the building, he was wondering about his job. He managed a few hours’ sleep in a downtown hotel, telephoned his wife to say good-bye, and took a cab to Idlewild.

In the taxi, and between dozes on the plane, he tried to organize in his mind what he had to get done. First he would have to learn from friends at the BBC all their arrangements for coverage. Then he would have to establish what was the best location from which film could be sent to the United States and there install his processing laboratory and editing rooms. Getting the picture to that location would mean setting up his own microwave relays from the best BBC point to a receiver near his film processor. The BBC would give NBC, and any other foreign networks, unhindered free access to its live pictures, but what the networks then did with them was their business. The BBC would be too busy to help. Anyway, although the BBC was very good at live television, it was less effective at microwave relays and kinescope recording—that is, putting television pictures on film.

Finally, his superiors had instructed Colledge to find a secret weapon. The best would be a chartered jet to carry NBC’s film across the Atlantic. The world’s first and, in 1953, still the only operating civilian jet plane was the de Havilland Comet, in British Overseas Airways Corporation service between London and South Africa, India, and the Far East. The Comet would be perfect for beating CBS on coronation-day afternoon; for the longer, more ambitious program planned for that night, a commercial propeller plane, a Constellation or DC-6B, with seats removed to allow for film-editing equipment, would be sufficient.

Colledge had a meeting with BOAC, which showed almost no interest in chartering one of its few Comets to him. He set about his other preparations. He picked as his base Blackbushe Airport, a small private facility some forty miles southwest of London.

His team arranged to install microwave dishes to bring the BBC pictures from the British Post Office tower at Maidenhead to a Quonset hut he had rented. Local authorities strained to give him whatever he needed, leapfrogging bureaucratic procedures to do things like connect his electricity and water, for the coronation, for the queen—even if it was for Americans. During the next seven months Colledge flew to New York every other weekend to see his family and report to his superiors, who would keep urging him on about the “secret weapon.”