- 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
What Ottawa—that is, the CBC—was showing at that tense moment on that auspicious day, with Joe DeBona getting closer and closer to Logan International Airport with CBS’s film, was not pictures of the coronation, which were in the film projector ready to roll when ordered, but Canada’s own ceremonies. Guards of honor marched and brass bands blared on the grassy banks of the Ottawa River in front of the Canadian Houses of Parliament. Canada’s own celebration of the coronation of its own queen would take precedence over any pictures from London. In Boston NBC executives chewed their nails and listened to their ulcers grow. Canada had scheduled a half-hour of ceremony, and a half-hour of ceremony was what the CBC would show. And whatever the CBC showed was what NBC showed. As Joe DeBona taxied to his landing and gave his film to a CBS technician, NBC had nowhere else to go.
At 4:17 P.M. , Ottawa switched to Montreal, and the kinescope of the London parade, and the crowds, and the coronation ceremonies began to roll. NBC was first with the pictures. By mere minutes, but first! (So was ABC, of course, but it was NBC that took a full-page advertisement in the next day’s New York Times .)
Bill McAndrew, NEC’s director of news, turned to the several dozen newspaper reporters who had come to watch the fun and report superciliously on the unusual battle of the networks. “Our secret weapon all along was television,” he told them. CBS had been beaten by thirteen minutes.
It would seem that after this there could only be anticlimax, but there was more. With the evening came the considered recitations of the day’s events, less like bulletins and more like his tory. NBC had chartered a Pan American Airways DC-6B to carry the films and kinescopes for its longer evening program from Blackbushe to Boston. The CBS charter was a BOAC Stratocruiser, a comfortable, if lumbering, plane with upper and lower decks. Seats had been removed in both chartered planes to make room for filmediting equipment, tables, Moviolas, film barrels, and all the rest, so the programs would be complete and ready for broadcast at the moment of landing.
In the Quonset hut at Blackbushe, Joe Colledge, having set a rigorous timetable as befits an engineer and wartime Navy commander, snatched from the film processor the very last piece of developed kinescope his deadline permitted, jumped aboard his chartered DC-6B, and ordered the doors shut. CBS’s Stratocruiser, flying the northern route, encountered headwinds and was forced to make a refueling stop at Gander, Newfoundland. The DC-6B, taking a more southerly route, broke the existing transatlantic crossing record, although it did not count because the plane carried so light a load. Without interruption it crossed the Atlantic, set down at Logan, and rolled right up to the administration building, where the hundred or so NBC managers, journalists, and technicians were gathered to watch. They all cheered even though being first reaching Logan did not matter this time, because prime time was prime time, and both networks held back their broadcasts until ten-thirty, as scheduled.
Of aftermath there was almost none. No one became famous for coronation coverage and rode that fame to a long career as several had at the political conventions: John Cameron Swayze in 1948, Walter Cronkite in 1952, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley in 1956. Technical progress would make moot all the problems the networks had had to solve in being first with the pictures of Elizabeth’s coronation. British tabloids had a nice time with a few days of lurid objections to Yanks showing a chimpanzee during the solemnities of the coronation service, but that soon blew over. The two main leaders of the Labor party, Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, argued passionately before the House of Commons that the way the American networks had besmirched the coronation with commercial interruptions argued against allowing commercial television in the United Kingdom. No one paid attention.
There was almost no aftermath; but a few NBC people wondered what had sunk Operation Astro.
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was, after all was said and done, a good show for the growing American television audience, and the show about the show was not bad either. But even a few days later, that was about all. No one remembered. No one cared. No mark was left on history. The moment it was over, it was over, yesterday’s news.
Only people at NBC, and not many of them, wondered what in fact had scuppered Operation Astro. What had happened to the Canberra bomber, purchased from English Electric by the Venezuelan air force and diverted by sweat and ingenuity to carrying NBC’s film to Labrador? Was it common for Canberra bombers crossing the Atlantic to develop problems with their fuel pumps? Unusual? Very rare?