The Great Coronation War

Its secret weapon no longer a secret or a weapon, NBC had to find a way to win the afternoon.

Aboard that Venezuelan Air Force jet, now headed back to London, was an hour-long film program, edited in NEC’s Quonset hut at Blackbushe from kinescopes of the BBC live telecast; film shot by NBC News cameramen outside the abbey and other unrestricted sites; and pictures having to do with history and tradition, filmed in the preceding weeks of preparation. A script had been written by an established NBC documentary writer, the distinguished Lou Hazam, relying heavily on echoes of the King James Version, phrases from English Romantic poets, and the iambic lilt of Shakespeare, like most nonfiction film in those days. The script had been resonantly read by Ralph Richardson. The two or three people who saw it said later it was a wonderful program. The Venezuelan Canberra returned to England. Presumably its fuel line was repaired before it finally made its way to Venezuela. By the time someone thought to look for the one-hour program it had carried, it was too late. The film was never found, the program never shown.

Meanwhile, NBC, its secret weapon no longer secret or a weapon, was left, like CBS, relying on what had been publicly announced. There would be the edited kinescopes for their afternoon programs, due to arrive in Goose Bay along with the similar pictures of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; there would be longer versions at night. For its longer version, CBS would rely on the reporting and presence of Edward R. Murrow, at the time the most famous and respected figure in broadcast journalism, whose very name, furthermore, was linked to reporting from Britain. Murrow had been in London to report on the coronation and was returning with the film.

NBC had to win the afternoon; evening would be too late. So the two P-51 Mustang fighters, CBS’s and NBC’s, headed for Labrador to meet the RAF Canberra bomber. The CBS P-51 was piloted by Joe DeBona, who had won the Bendix trophy race in it in 1949. The NBC P-51 was piloted by Stanley Reaver, who had finished second in the same race. He said he was determined not to let DeBona do it to him again. DeBona left Goose Bay at 2:02 P.M. , Eastern time, and arrived in Boston at 4:13. Reaver left at 2:15, had ice problems, and arrived at 4:37.

Long before 4:37 the results were obvious. In the CBS hangar jubilation ruled for the second time that day as DeBona radioed his continuing progress to Logan Airport. In the NBC offices, where nothing had gone right that day, that week, or, it began to seem, that year, the gloom was thick enough to touch. Then, as sometimes happens, someone had an idea, and he told his boss, who told his boss, who told his boss, who was Charles H. (“Bud”) Barry, Jr., NBC’s vice president for television programs, to whom NBC News people and many others reported.

Barry, a big, bluff, active man not used to frowning, was sitting in the control room at the time while NBC’s live television cameras panned across the skies above Boston, looking for something to show if and when someone in charge decided to break into the network. He reached for a telephone and crawled under the trestle table at the back of the control room at which executives sat. He called Robert Kintner, the president of ABC.

“If I pay for your line charges from Montreal, may I share the lines with you? It means you get them for nothing; we’ll pay the whole freight. We want to carry the CBC’s afternoon program.” Kintner played hard to get against the onrushing clock. Then he agreed. Finally, he decided that ABC too would carry the CBC’s afternoon program. At 3:56 P.M. both ABC and NBC switched to Ottawa.

(The NBC broadcast had opened at 3:45 with a live picture from Logan International Airport of Ben Grauer scanning the empty skies. Grauer, an old-time announcer perhaps best known for his work on the Toscanini broadcasts with the NBC Symphony, talked about the year of preparation that had gone into NEC’s pending presentation of the pictures of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He talked about NEC’s disappointment at the mechanical failure of the jet bomber, depriving the network of the privilege of bringing its audience the coronation pictures three hours earlier. He announced that it was his pleasure to inform the faithful waiting audience that NEC had an alternative method to be first in the United States with the coronation pictures. “We take you now,” Grauer concluded, “to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Ottawa, Canada.”)