Live from Chicago: Defining moments in TV history
Kennedy-Nixon Debate (1960)
To understand this year’s presidential debates and why they matter so much, you have to go back to an autumn night 52 years ago in Chicago when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon met at the old McClurg Court studios of WBBM-TV.
Television, politics and history intersected as never before in the first broadcast debate between presidential candidates. Kennedy’s glamour and style trumped Nixon’s experience and rhetorical skills, proving conclusively the power of television to sway millions of voters. According to many historians, the election of 1960 was decided right then and there.
The fact that it happened in Chicago may be coincidental, but it wasn’t the only pivotal event in the annals of television to occur in our town. In chronological order, here’s my list of 10 defining moments in American TV history that took place here:
Garroway at Large (April 16, 1949) Four months after NBC television began operations in Chicago, Dave Garroway launched an experimental musical variety show that came to define the Chicago School of Television. By 1952, the network tapped him as the first host of the Today show.
The original anchorman (July 7, 1952) For its coverage of the 1952 Republican National Convention at the International Amphitheatre, CBS had to come up with a new word to describe the role of its master of ceremonies, a 35-year-old newsman named Walter Cronkite. Borrowing a term from relay racing, they called him an “anchorman.”
“Wires and lights in a box” (October 15, 1958) The only non-televised event on this list was Edward R. Murrow’s prophetic address about television, delivered to a convention of news directors at the Sheraton-Blackstone Hotel: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
The Great Debate (September 26, 1960) People who heard it on radio judged Richard M. Nixon the winner over John F. Kennedy. But the 70 million viewers who watched it on television that night saw it differently.
The first satellite (July 23, 1962) Telstar, the first commercial communications satellite to orbit the earth and relay television pictures through space, featured a segment of a Phillies-Cubs game from Wrigley Field. It was the first time many Europeans had ever seen baseball — or heard Jack Brickhouse.
“The whole world is watching” (August 28, 1968) The chant by anti-war protesters literally came true when television cameras captured Chicago police beating demonstrators and bystanders outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
World News Tonight (July 10, 1978) Max Robinson became the first African-American to anchor a network news broadcast when ABC News installed him in Chicago as part of a nightly triumvirate with Frank Reynolds in Washington and Peter Jennings in London.
Al Capone’s Vault (April 21, 1986) Geraldo Rivera hosted a live, two-hour special that promised to unearth treasures hidden under the Lexington Hotel, once the South Side headquarters of Al Capone. Although Rivera found nothing but debris, the syndicated special drew a record 30 million viewers and created a new genre of programming.
Victory in Grant Park (November 4, 2008) The euphoria of the crowd that gathered on Chicago’s front lawn to celebrate Barack Obama’s historic election to the White House was palpable to viewers everywhere.
Oprah’s farewell (May 17, 2011) After 25 years of unparalleled success as the queen of television, Oprah Winfrey reigned over a gargantuan gathering of stars at the United Center the likes of which will never, ever be seen again.
Anything missing? I welcome your additions to the list.