Friday, September 2, 2022

Walter Cronkite Got his Wish—A Half Hour CBS Evening News

It must have been a very hot news night when The Evening News with Walter Cronkite was aired on CBS's still un-air conditioned set in New York City.

He had only been on the job a little more than a year when Walter Cronkite finally got his wish. Over the fierce objections of local affiliates who resented losing profitable time for local or syndicated programming to the network, his program, re-named the CBS Evening News, expanded from 15 to 30 minutes every night on September 2, 1963.

A week later NBCs Huntley-Brinkley Report, the ratings leader among the three network news programs by a wide margin, reluctantly followed suit.  ABCs lightly regarded and little watched new program then anchored by the entirely forgotten Ron Cochran didn’t even bother.  It wasn’t until two years later during Peter Jennings rocky first tenure in the anchor chair that ABC joined the trend.

At first many critics and the public weren’t sure that there would “be enough news” to fill a half hour.  The early years were still dominated by the anchors reading the news.  Network correspondents in New York and Washington could get on the air easily.  But live feeds from other locations were difficult and expensive.  On-the-spot coverage was shot on film, which had to be rushed to network headquarters, developed, printed, and edited which could mean delays in seeing events from a few hours to days for stories filed by correspondents half a world away.

Walter Cronkite prided himself on not only being the anchor of The CBS Evening News but the program's Managing Editor broadcasting from a working newsroom in the mid-1960s.

But Cronkite was right.  The Sixties were exploding with news.  Just a week before his premier the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom featuring Martin Luther Kings dramatic speech had captured the attention of the nation.  The Civil Rights Movement and grainy film footage of cops beating demonstrators would be a staple of the expanded broadcasts.  So would rising Cold War tensions symbolized by yet another Berlin Crisis.  In Washington a photogenic President and a glamorous First Lady drove news cycles, as they were coming be known.

In November the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its aftermath would more than fill the nightly broadcasts.  Still ahead were the great Space Race, a rapidly escalating War in Vietnam and the protest movement against it, a whole counter cultural movement, and, as always politics, politics, and more politics.

By the end of the decade, having vanquished NBC’s once insurmountable lead in viewers and having established himself as “The most trusted man in America” Cronkite would be clamoring to expand his program to a full hour.  The affiliates, preferring to expand their local news operations instead blocked his ambition. 

Nora O'Donnell is heir to Cronkite's program but languishes in third place among broadcast network and behind cable news networks CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

In its current configuration as The CBS Evening News With Nora O’Donnell it remains a 30 minute program and has slipped to a distant third place among the shrinking audience for the over-the-air Big Three television networks.


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