News powered NBC’s early days

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

It was 1950. My friends, even my parents, thought me odd to leave a good job on a major newspaper for this new television thing. TV was still for watching baseball in bars, and the few people one knew who actually owned one talked mostly about wrestling.
In fact, when my classmate Gerald Green asked if I’d be interested in a job at NBC TV news, I said “No.” Gerry found this insulting. There I was, working the late shift as night city editor. By day, our new baby kept me awake. It was discourteous to not even visit.
That made sense, so I did.
NBC TV and radio news were then organizationally and physically separate. TV was at Park Avenue and 106th Street, where the New York Central tracks came above ground; not the best part of town. But the building housed Pathe Laboratories. An atypically intelligent executive understood it was better to have studios near the lab than messenger film downtown. Getting pictures to TV already took too long. Film had to get from the event to the lab and then through the soup.
I learned all this on my tour of the newsroom, the studio, the entire floor of cutting rooms. Most surprising was a large room with seats in rows and a screen-what I would have called a theater but was told was a “screening room.” It was empty except for two guys in the back. They were watching film, taken the day before, at some crisis point in Berlin. The pictures were in negative. One guy said to the other he wanted an opening shot, then seven seconds of two guys arguing, then soldiers marching, and like that. I knew instantly that’s how I wanted to live! I stayed 38 years.
At the time, TV’s main newscast, which I wrote for three years, was “The Camel News Caravan” with John Cameron Swayze. The Korean War had just begun-on June 25. Our staff cameraman in Tokyo, having shot newsreels for the entire Pacific War, was living fat and happy in Tokyo like many World War II correspondents. “Not all the money in New York” would get him to Korea, back to combat.
Early in July, Charles and Eugene Jones, twins in their early 20s, walked into our Washington bureau. They wanted to film the war.
They shot hours of film, much of it unusual. But they got in close. The GIs, who were of the same age, accepted them. Out of too much film, the few minutes the editors extracted brought the war home. There were nights when “The Camel News Caravan” had bigger audiences than Milton Berle, the first TV king. Vietnam was not the first living room war, Korea was.
But in 1950 less than half the country had TV stations, and where television was available few people owned sets. Network feeds could not go west of Kansas City. We once interviewed an Arizona congressman who said things you knew his constituents despised. I asked if he wasn’t risking trouble. He said, “We don’t have TV yet.”
Just as network TV began in time for the 1948 political conventions (carried live only from Boston to Richmond, Va.), so did the networks reach the West Coast in time for the 1952 conventions. The radio writers chose that time to strike. We television writers, all seven of us, told the radio writers it was the wrong time. When conventions mattered, the last thing they needed was writers. The news wrote itself, as did the drama. We did not strike but agreed to honor the picket line.
NBC did well in the ratings and all that, but CBS’s coverage, anchored by Walter Cronkite, got the press attention. NBC’s anchor was Bill Henry, a good journalist and broadcaster but a part-timer; his main employer was the Los Angeles Times. When it came time to pick the anchor for 1956, I had progressed to where I would be heard among the others.
The brass wanted Bill Henry again, but I disagreed. I had been working with Chet Huntley, newly arrived from California. I admired David Brinkley, who did Washington reports for “The Camel News Caravan.” I was unsure which would be the better convention anchor. You know how that turned out.
Although our bosses, all the way up to Pat Weaver, were not taken with our idea, without a better one they went along. But there was no press release for about six weeks while the publicity gang howled for something to give the papers. Finally, David was called to New York to be photographed with Chet. I think that’s when they first met. The pictures were vacuous: two men eyeing each other glassily, holding some new camera, which wasn’t to be their job.
They succeeded so well the brass picked them to replace John Swayze. I told my boss and friend Bill McAndrew that I wanted no part of it. It wasn’t history’s first two-person, two-city newscast that concerned me but being caught between two stars. As it turned out, in the 10 years I produced that program, it happened only once, and it was my fault! I had assigned both of them the same lead story.
“The Huntley-Brinkley Report” was the kind of success that drove CBS nuts. The “research” people-I once thought “research” meant men in white inventing miracle drugs, but in TV they’re guys who read Nielsen numbers-credited our dominance to Chet and David’s chatting. “But,” I said, “they never talk to each other. They’re not even in the same place.” When David says “Chet” or Chet says “David,” it tells AT&T guys along the line to reverse switches.
The biggest influence on NBC News was Bob Kintner-Robert Edmonds Kintner, the influential newspaper columnist who moved to broadcasting. When he became president in 1958, NBC had not one program in the Nielsen Top 10. He used news as the engine to pull the network. Then Kintner left. Julian Goodman became president of NBC. I had worked with Julian for years when he was bureau chief in Washington. He wanted me to go into management. I had my doubts but said OK-for four years, no more.
Then Bill McAndrew died .
Julian thought I should be president of NBC News. I accepted. As Julian and I talked, I recalled the day I first saw a screening room. And the day I was hired, when I said to the man in charge. “Why are you hiring me? All you know about me is I’m a friend of Gerry Green. NBC is an established, respected, worldwide news organization with top people.”
He told me no one in radio who was any good would come to television. They weren’t sure it would last.
That was 1950.
Mr. Reuven was twice president of NBC News, from 1968-1973 and from 1982-1984.