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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
When American television was very young, but American royalty-worship was not, the biggest, loudest, most pointless battle for supremacy among the networks was over which would be first—by mere minutes, if necessary—to show pictures of the coronation of the British queen. It was a tale of intrigue and double-dealing, and of such enormous popular interest one wonders how the Founders would have felt, they who had pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to defeat Elizabeth IFs ancestor and rid their country forever of his rule and his heirs.
Americans had always loved Elizabeth, starting with World War II when, even before America’s entry, her father, King George VI, came visiting with his family to make, by symbol rather than overt act or speech, the case for his beleaguered island. When in 1951 George VTs daughter Elizabeth visited Washington with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, President Truman called her a “fairy princess.” Indeed, all America looked on the woman we now know as the troubled materfamilias as a fairy princess, courageous and free of guile. They remembered her from the newsreels, how she had stayed near Eondon with her family during the blitz, while children of the nobility and even the merely well-to-do were shipped to safety in Canada or Australia, and how when she was older she wore her country’s uniform and drove military trucks.
Forty years ago, on June 2, 1953, that same Elizabeth was crowned queen, and American interest boiled over. Live cameras were allowed in Westminster Abbey, and more than twenty million of her subjects saw their monarch as she was crowned. For their part the American television networks, vying to be first with pictures of the coronation, picked it for their first big, brawling, competitive battleground.
Television did not seem primitive at the time, of course, and certainly not to those employed in it. There had been such progress in the five years since American television networks began that those inside the industry lived with a continuous sense of marvel, of discovery upon discovery, and all the discoveries, including some not yet public, would be used to show America the pageantry that had been waiting centuries for television to be invented. To be sure, color television had not yet emerged from the laboratory, and communications satellites were years away. Sending pictures directly across the Atlantic was possible, but only by pre-empting all existing underwater cables at the prohibitive cost, a regretful Postmaster General informed the House of Commons, of forty million dollars. These were nevertheless small deficiencies compared with the marvel that there was television at all. At that time everyone still remembered when there had been none.
Because Americans could not see what was happening in London as it happened, the fight would be over which network would show it first, and only CBS and NBC had the manpower, engineering capacity, and money it would take to play. Still limited and impoverished, with the fewest stars, the weakest stations, the smallest audiences, and, necessarily, the smallest, least aggressive news department, ABC would sit out the heroic struggle.
The pictures themselves would not be on videotape, which was years away, but on sixteen-millimeter film. The film would record the British television coverage and, once it had been somehow transported across the ocean, would accurately, if somewhat smearily, play it back on American television. The race might be decided by minutes.
Unnoticed except for its very last days (when it attracted almost as much press attention as the coronation itself), the contest to show the first television pictures took more than a year. The British Broadcasting Company’s television coverage of George VTs funeral in February 1952 earned the reluctant approval of Britain’s establishment with its decorum and appropriateness and the respectful attention of broadcasting organizations all over the world for its completeness and innovation. The immediate next thought was what “great television” Elizabeth’s coronation would be, if one were allowed in. In the event, one was not allowed in. Only the BBC might cover, but it offered to all free access to its pictures. In fact, the mighty contest between the American networks was to be first to show the BBC’s pictures. That was often lost sight of in the skirmishing.
If thoughts of covering the coronation were immediate, thoughts of battling the other fellow for first place developed more slowly. All through the summer and fall of 1952 the networks and their news divisions were fully occupied with the political conventions and the first Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential campaign. Only with those behind them could executives, still a small group, give coronation coverage the attention it demanded. But from election day, November 4, 1952, to coronation day, on June 2, 1953, there were executives at NBC and CBS who thought of nothing else.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”)
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?
Colledge’s boss, Bill McAndrew, the director of news at NBC, had gone to the Logan Airport chapel that morning for early mass, nervous about all these fancy schemes, convinced he needed all the help he could get. The message that the plane had turned back was sent into him in the chapel. He came out ashen, looking like a man who had suffered a personal tragedy. Some of his associates suggested to him then that the turning back of the Canberra was not a mechanical action but a political one. He did not believe them.
But that is what it was. McAndrew’s direct superior, the one who stood between him and Bud Barry, a man of exquisite intellectual pretension and virtually no direct experience in journalism, had taken it upon himself to let some BBC executives in on the plans for Operation Astro. The BBC, a quasigovernmental corporation now aware it was caught in a contest between two American networks, had a few words with the Air Ministry. The two pilots from the ferrying service who were to fly the Canberra to Gander, Newfoundland, and on to Venezuela from there both were reserve officers in the Royal Air Force. The Air Ministry would have no problem ordering them to turn around and fly home.
Colledge had friends at the BBC. One of them was the man who had built up the BBC’s field television capability, what Americans call “remote” and the British call “outside broadcast.” It was he, in fact, who had organized and supervised the live camera coverage of the coronation. He and Colledge had become friends the preceding January, when he had come to Washington to study how the inauguration of President Eisenhower was covered on television and had spent most of his time in the NBC control room. Several years later, in London, at dinner, Colledge asked him why the BBC had the plane ordered to return.
He did not deny that it had. He said only: “To protect our Canadian coverage.”
Friends are friends, but the Crown is the Crown, and the Commonwealth is the Commonwealth, and it would hardly do, would it, to have the queen’s coronation shown in the United States before it could even be seen in Canada. Some things are more important than other things.