Television Firsts Surround the Crowning of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953

The occasion of the 1st International Television Event arrives but is overshadowed by CBS & NBC in their race to be 1st.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June of 1953 was a flawless production. Rehearsed, reverent, professional, everyone agreeing to what had to be done to make it the classic ceremony that had taken place time and again over the last thousand years. The only difference this time would be the common folk in Great Britain and ultimately millions worldwide would have a better seat for the ceremony than any Duke, Duchess or Earl. The difference would be television.

From the beginning the groom, Prince Phillip, had advocated modernization. At the other end of the spectrum, the older establishment including the Queen Mother and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, insisted on maintaining tradition and said no to television. While it would seem to indicate Phillip had been overruled, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) leaked the decision of the traditionalists to the general public. In the court of public opinion, 78% favored televising the Coronation. Bowing under pressure from the royal monarch’s subjects, the BBC received a go ahead to bring their live cameras to the ceremony.

Peter Dimmock, BBC Director/Producer explains further in this BBC clip.

Most of Europe could be serviced by a live signal. In the years after peace was declared in Europe, “Eurovision” was a concept being advanced by the continent’s television and radio services. Leaders of the group were the BBC and Rediodiffusion et Télévision Françaises (RTF) representing France. Tests had been done and some working agreements had been created.

On the day of the Coronation, BBC sent a live feed to the continent by way of a microwave link from Dover, across the English Channel to Calais, France, then to the Netherlands and Germany. Kinescopes of the proceedings would have to do for the rest of the world. Within days of the broadcast, the films would be made available to existing television stations around the world including the U.S.A.

Remember there were no overseas live capabilities we take for granted now. Satellites were at least ten years away. Likewise, the invention of videotape was still three years away. Other than “Live,” kinescope recordings were the only way to distribute television programming. The BBC was creating the first television event of international proportions.

The BBC was most gracious in accommodating the many requests for copies in places they could not reach with a live signal. Had they known what lengths the Americans would go, specifically CBS and NBC, they might have thought better of giving up the films without more stringent restrictions.

For example, in the remote hope of getting a live signal from the BBC, NBC made elaborate plans including pressing RCA’s Long Island shortwave listening post into service. According to a June 1st, 1953, article in the New York Times, “Only occasionally in the past have British television signals, through some freak of nature, been received clearly in this country on frequencies used by the BBC.” Special aerials were erected and a British television receiver and kinescope film recorder were installed at Riverhead, Long Island, to intercept the signal should it appear. A helicopter will be standing by to rush the film back to Manhattan.

And then there were the airplane races.

Reuvan Frank who later became a president of NBC News, writing about the Coronation in 1993 for American Heritage, said, ”ABC was involved in none of this. The network ‘runt of the litter’ was still several years away from [challenging] the big boys on their own turf.” Instead they “arranged to carry, at no charge, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) telecast of the kinescope of the entire BBC coverage.” ABC’s only expense would be for transmission lines and costs from the CBC.

But CBS and NBC both had reasons to beat the other to air the first pictures. They had promised their affiliates they would be first and worth the faith their stations (both current and potential) had placed in them. Aside from what it would do for the ego in one of the two executive suites, both networks were in a battle to win affiliation contracts.

NBC had lost the lead to CBS in radio, still the more widely reaching, and therefore, more profitable of the two media. And NBC’s affiliated station in Norfolk, Virginia, had just been lured away by CBS and others were on the “critical list.” Affiliates were concerned about leadership at RCA/NBC. On the other hand, before the VHF station freeze, CBS had advised its radio affiliates to wait to apply for television licenses so they could build their facilities around the CBS color system. Now it looked like color wasn’t going to happen anytime soon and when it did it would not be the system CBS had advised its affiliates to wait for.

The two networks sent separate teams to London to set up for the broadcast. It appears no expense was spared. Both networks chartered large aircraft. CBS’s British Overseas Air Corporation Stratocruiser, the largest airplane in transatlantic service at the time had a downstairs bar area that had been removed and converted to an office area, projection room and editing area. NBC’s Pan American DC-6 charter was similarly equipped for television. Both of these aircraft would fly directly to Boston for the late evening recap’s, about a ten hour flight. Boston was the closest U.S. city to London saving about an hour of flying time over New York.

Adding to the costs, CBS set up a facility in a Quonset hut at Heathrow Airport. Likewise, Charles Colledge, second in command in NBC News, picked out Blackbushe Airport, a small private airport forty miles outside of London and set up a live microwave feed from BBC’s downtown tower to their Quonset hut. In both locations, the buildings would become combination offices, film laboratories, recording studios and editing rooms.

Boston also was the closest transmission point with the ability to feed the entire country for both networks. Again, buildings were leased and a microwave relay to AT&T’s television circuits were installed at the city’s Logan International Airport.

To get the kinescoped footage to Boston, both networks reserved space on a Royal Air Force jet bomber.  The CBC wrote “It involved Royal Air Force Canberra light bombers and Canadian CF-100 fighter jets flying coronation films from London to Goose Bay, N.L., to Montreal in a relay” to deliver the kinescopes. The stop in Goose Bay, Labrador, would allow CBS and NBC to offload their film to their P-51’s for delivery to Boston.

British Canberra Bomber on the left; Royal Canadian CF-100’s on the right.

Now the story becomes interesting if not a little silly. CBS knew that the actor, Jimmy Stewart, was both a part owner of one of its affiliate stations but also enjoyed being an owner of a World War II P51 Mustang that had been souped up for racing by its pilot, Joe De Bona. Through Stewart, CBS made arrangements for the De Bona P51 to pick up the film in Goose Bay and fly it to CBS at Logan Airport.

NBC arranged for another P51, also a racing plane flown by Stanley Reaver, to meet their film in Goose Bay. Reaver had just lost first place to De Bona in a major air race and was interested in a high profile rematch.

Unbeknownst to anyone outside of NBC’s team, the secretive location NBC had chosen was to hide its “secret weapon.” They had entered into a discussion with the manufacturer of the airplane, English Electric’s Canberra jet bomber. It so happens the company was about to deliver one of its jet aircraft to the Venezuelan Air Force in late May or early June.

In the agreement NBC struck with the ferrying company, the pilots would fly the early kinescopes to North America, drop off the film while making a refueling stop in Boston and continue on to Venezuela. According to Reuvan Frank’s article, “Getting the ferrying company to move the delivery date to June 2nd was much easier than Colledge anticipated, although he later remembered one thousand pounds changing hands…”

On June 2nd, over twenty million viewers watched live over the BBC as Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in a service conducted in Westminster Abbey. In the U.S., the “Today” show went on the air at 5:30am EDT to begin coverage in any way it could. It relayed the BBC’s radio coverage and still pictures using a device called “Mufax,” a wire transfer machine that would relay still images in only nine minutes.

Inside the control room in Westminster Abbey

By 7:30am EDT the ceremony film was processed and cut. Once the films had been packed, the Royal Air Force jet delivering the CBC (and those from CBS and NBC) could begin its 2,480 mile journey across the north Atlantic to the Americas.

But before that aircraft was able to take off, bad news was getting out about the NBC Venezuela jet that had gotten underway at 6:24am EDT. After about two hours into the flight the jet had to turn back to London due to fuel line problems. Luckily, NBC continued with the arrangements for the P51 to pick-up the footage from the morning ceremonies merely as a backup plan.

The race would start at Goose Bay. The Royal Air Force jet fighter took off at 8:46am EDT and landed in Labrador at 1:45pm EDT. The British jet was unloaded. The CBC films were loaded on the Royal Canadian Air Force jet fighter and took off for Montreal arriving at 3:45pm. The CBC technicians would start the BBC kinescope program after they had finished their coverage of the Canadian celebration emanating from Ottawa.

Walter Cronkite telegraphed the CBS group aboard the Stratocruiser to let them know the status. It was addressed to Sig Mikelson who was the first president of CBS News and wrote the book “The Decade that Shaped Television News.” Mikelson wrote he was among the group along with Ed Murrow, Don Hewitt, Bill Lodge (VP of CBS Engineering) returning aboard the evening plane trying to make a 10:30pm EDT air-time. They had just joined the British flight crew in toasting their new queen when they received the wire that NBC’s Venezuelan jet was returning to London with a fuel line problem. Now they only had to sweat out the airplane race to Boston. They probably refilled their glasses again to toast that De Bona in the CBS P-51 would succeed.

About this same time, the two P51’s took off for Logan Airport. The CBS flight got underway first at 2:02pm. NBC started out behind as its P51 didn’t get in the air until 2:15 and had problems with icing. As the minutes ticked by it became obvious the NBC flight was not going to catch up to the CBS aircraft.

In the CBS converted aircraft hanger, the personnel were hearing the NBC plane wasn’t making good time. And in the makeshift offices of NBC, as reported by Reuvan Frank, “the gloom was thick enough to touch.” Then there was an idea. The idea went up the chain of command until it reached Charles Barry, NBC’s Vice President for television programs. As Frank described it, he reached for a telephone and secluded himself under a desk in the back of the control room. He called Robert Kintner, the president of ABC. “If I pay for your line charges from Montreal, may I share the lines with you?”

They haggled while precious minutes crept by and then Kintner gave in.

Mikelson wrote that on board the Stratocruiser they were calculating when ABC would be getting to the actual crowning. They would be running the CBC feed which was uncut from the BBC feed. “It was a reasonable certainty that CBS would show the Archbishop of Canterbury placing the crown on the Queen’s head before the CBC version reached that point.”

At 3:56pm both ABC and NBC switched to the CBC’s Ottawa program. It was 4:16pm before the CBC switched to Montreal and the BBC London footage finally began to roll on North American television screens. It should be pointed out that neither the CBC nor the BBC had any pressure on them. Both of them can more aptly be compared to the USA’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) than to the U.S. commercial networks.

At Logan International, CBS’s P51 landed at 4:13pm and the network went on the air with its edited BBC kinescope footage at 4:23pm. Broadcasting magazine said, “…that its telecast gave the American audience its first view of the actual Coronation rite” even though it was last getting the program on the air.

So, who won?

Well, technically, nobody did. After all, when it came down to the broadcast of the coronation and crowning, all NBC had done was abandoned the P51 and take the feed from ABC who was rebroadcasting the Canadian Broadcasting feed who in turn was only running a kinescope of the uncut BBC live feed. CBS was the only network to run its own edited version.

If anybody could justify saying they won, it would be ABC who let the British and Canadians handle the whole show. And they were magnanimous about it.

Both NBC and CBS placed full-page ads in the New York Times the next day bragging about how they brought the coronation to the U.S. first. From NBC’s claims “First Pictures” (the wirephoto stills from the Today show’s Mufax machine) to CBS’s claim “…the best medium to stage a spectacle is the best showcase for a product. There’s crowning success for both on television’s most popular network.”

ABC kept their advertisement in the trade press. In Broadcasting of June 15th, 1953, they lauded the British for their restrained and reverent coverage of the event and praised the Canadians for their efficient and speedy delivery. ABC said, “if we can take credit for anything, it’s the fact that we brought this nationally important event to America efficiently, effectively and economically.” The ad wraps up by saying they think “the crown for coronation coverage should stay in England and Canada. It doesn’t fit right on our American head.”

In December, 1953, the Sylvania Television Awards singled out ABC-TV, BBC and CBC by honoring them for Timely News Coverage for the Coronation.

In a post script, years later, Charles Colledge found himself in London at a dinner with a BBC staffer he had gotten to know. Frank writes, “Colledge asked him why the BBC had the plane ordered to return. [The BBC staffer] did not deny that it had. He said only: “To protect our Canadian coverage.”

Nobody knows where the edited program that NBC had sent with the Venezuelan jet ended up. According to Frank, “The two or three people who saw it said later it was a wonderful program…The film was never found, the program never shown.” To this day it is still missing.

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