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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
The CBC’s copy of the kinescope would be flown by a Canberra jet of the Royal Air Force—not the Venezuelan air force’s Canberra that NBC hoped to use, which was still a secret—to Goose Bay, Labrador. On the same RAF plane would be the kinescopes of the BBC live television broadcast made by the two American networks. These three were the early, incomplete kinescopes that would provide the Canadians and the two American networks with the first programs, in the afternoon of coronation day. CBS and NBC had each independently arranged with private owners of P-51 Mustangs, the American-made World War II fighters considered the fastest propeller planes ever built, to meet the RAF Canberra in Goose Bay and bring their films to Boston. The CBC’s kinescope would be transferred to a jet of the Royal Canadian Air Force to fly it to Montreal for broadcast on the Canadian network.
The momentous Tuesday dawned. Everything seemed ready. The level of public interest in the United States, in both the coronation and television’s coverage of it, exceeded expectation and logic. Both CBS and NBC had shown specially produced documentaries during the weekend about the monarchy and the pending observances, solemn in tone and using words like mystique . The New ‘York Times expected the coronation to get a “higher Hooperating than ‘I Love Lucy’ and Arthur Godfrey combined.”
“Today,” barely two years old, was still the only morning information program on television. On June 2 it came on the air ninety minutes early, at 5:30 A.M. , with radio reports and still photographs transmitted from London in the then astonishing time of nine minutes each by a device called Mufax, of which much was made. A BBC reporter named Tom Fleming told America he was at Westminster Abbey and “the scene here is one of quiet expectation.” The bells of St. Margaret’s could be heard in the background.
Finally it was time to speak openly of NEC’s secret weapon, to alert the audience to the wonders in store, to keep people tuned in. At 6:22 film made some days before of the Canberra bomber, the one that was to be delivered to Venezuela, was broadcast in New York while Romney Wheeler’s voice, by radio circuit from Blackbushe Airport, talked of NEC’s coup. There might be pictures on NBC, said Wheeler, as early as one in the afternoon. This would be as much as three hours earlier than anyone else’s pictures. The announcement stunned the CBS people in the hangar. Friends called friends to see if it was true.
“Today” went back to the still photographs arriving by Mufax and radio reports from the BBC. From time to time there were live pictures, from the New York studio, of J. Fred Muggs, the costarring chimpanzee of “Today.” In the weeks ahead the chimpanzee would be discussed in the House of Commons.
The coronation ceremony itself was heard at 6:30 A.M. , Eastern time, which was 11:30 A.M. in London. The archbishop of Canterbury presented the queen to the people (still photograph of the abbey); he administered the oath, which she repeated (still photograph of the queen); she kissed a Bible (still photograph of the choir). “Today” paused for a commercial. The New York camera then showed H. V. Kaltenborn, NBC News’s most senior and well-known commentator, who commentated that Elizabeth would be as good a queen as Victoria and that he expected the thousand-year-old line to last a long time, unless there was another wicked king like George III. “Today” returned to BBC radio and Mufax pictures and the news item that Edmund Hillary had observed the day by climbing Mount Everest.
The program went on that way, filling in with interviews of guests who knew about coronations, or British history, or downtown Eondon traffic, whenever BBC radio or the Mufax faltered. Then, at 8:21:30 Eastern daylight time, a sad announcement: The secret weapon had been blunted, six months of secret planning wiped out. “Today” switched, by radio, to Blackbushe Airport, where Romney Wheeler reported that NEC’s special Canberra bomber had experienced trouble in its fuel feed before reaching the point of no return and was returning to London.