- Historic Sites
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
By spring BOAC was beginning to show what Colledge later recalled as a mild interest in letting him charter a Comet, but his questions about removing seats, room for film-editing equipment, or smoothness of ride were too exotic for them to answer. Why did he not, they asked, go to Rome, catch the Singapore-to-London flight, and see for himself? He arrived in Rome on May 2 and, speaking no Italian, tried to make a hotel desk clerk understand his need for an early wake-up call, then went to bed.
The next morning he was awakened from a sound sleep by a voice speaking a heavily accented English that, he finally made out after much shouting and repeating, was telling him the Comet would not fly to London that day. BOAC would be pleased to make other arrangements for him. It was hours before he learned that the plane he was booked on had crashed in a storm minutes after taking off from Calcutta, killing all forty-three aboard. It was the third Comet to crash in the year since the plane had entered commercial service. BOAC was no longer interested in discussing a charter.
This meant that the only secret weapon left would be a military jet, a fighter or bomber belonging to some country’s air force. Or to a manufacturer who might be enticed by the potential for publicity at the dawn of jet propulsion on the international arms market. British aircraft makers were leaders in this expanding marketplace, and the annual air show at Farnborough was their trade fair. One of the great successes at a recent Farnborough was English Electric’s Canberra bomber, which was selling vigorously all over the world. Colledge, accompanied by Romney Wheeler, chief of the NBC News London bureau, flew to Bristol to talk to English Electric. Coronation day was less than a month off.
In Bristol they learned there was indeed a Canberra scheduled for delivery to the Venezuelan air force at the end of May or early June. But Mr. Colledge would understand that the manufacturer’s responsibility ended when it handed the plane over to the ferrying company, whose name and telephone number it would gladly supply. Getting the ferrying company to move the delivery date to June 2 was much easier than Colledge anticipated, although he later remembered one thousand pounds changing hands, a lot of money in those austere days. The matter was quickly arranged. Everyone was sworn to secrecy. Wheeler christened the scheme Operation Astro. NBC had its secret weapon.
Back in the United States the more open arrangements had been going ahead at a logical pace to install full broadcasting facilities in Boston’s Logan International Airport, because Boston is an hour closer to London than New York. The airport’s managers, wanting publicity for their new terminal, welcomed the networks. A press agent badgered the people at the two networks’ broadcasting studios, NBC’s in the administration building, CBS’s in a hangar, to keep repeating “Logan International Airport” in their copy.
The contest in Boston reflected the accelerating rivalry of the two networks, a serious, vigorous business confrontation with overtones of personal bitterness. NBC, the pioneer, had lost the lead to CBS in radio, still the more widely reaching, and therefore more profitable, of the two. NEC’s lead in television entertainment, expensively achieved, was being threatened; CBS had just lured away NEC’s affiliated station in Norfolk, Virginia. There had been a year of executive turmoil at the top of NEC, and David Sarnoff himself had come down from the heights of RCA, where he was chairman, to serve also as the network’s interim president until someone permanent could be found. To NBC’s disheartened affiliated stations he could only promise: Wait for color; with color everything will be better.
Meanwhile, there was the coronation. But even there trouble loomed. A CBS press agent importuned Boston’s mayor to declare CBS-Coronation-in-Boston Day. Sarnoff dispatched a vice president who, his job on the line, managed to get the proclamation revised to honor CBS-and-NBC-Coronation-in-Boston Day. It hardly undid the damage. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, workers worked, installers installed, and each network was ready with its own television studio, control room, newsroom with wire-service teletypes, and hospitality lounges for VIPs, internal and advertising, and newspaper reporters, who would be coaxed to Boston by free flights and hotel rooms. There were also offices for executives and for the people who approve expense accounts.
ABC was involved in none of this. The network runt of the litter was still several years away from its dramatic and successful challenge to the big boys on their own turf. No special Boston studios for ABC, no publicity juggernauts, no secret weapons. ABC’s president, Robert E. Kintner, who would achieve fame years later as president of NBC, arranged to carry, at no charge, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s telecast of the kinescope of the entire BBC coverage on the evening of June 2. ABC’s only coronationday expense would be for connections to the CBC’s transmission lines.