In 1951, the U.S. Army produced and made available a thirty-minute television show to all television stations in the U.S. and its possessions. In some markets it had institutional sponsorship by a local business. It was the army’s first involvement in television syndication. It was called the “The Big Picture.”
Who knew that from these auspicious beginnings would come one of the longest running television shows ever to grace the airwaves? It was on the air twenty years (1951-1971) and produced over 600 episodes. Unabashedly, it was a public relations propaganda vehicle and unapologetic thirty-minute promotion for Army recruiting.
The medium of television was still new. In those early days local stations had to fill up time. Local station management was always on the look out for not just good programming but also a way to fill their open time slots on their schedule inexpensively. And an Army documentary show would provide them a credit the Federal Communications Commission would look upon as “public service.” A free once a week thirty minute show that could be planted in the middle of institutional advertising at the beginning and the close of the program would go a long way to cover time that might instead just be a test pattern.
“The Big Picture” (TBP) came along at an opportune time. The military’s advertising budget was under scrutiny by Congress. Pentagon public relations faced cutbacks by the Legislature. Several long running military shows on radio had already been cancelled. Here was basically a program put together from hours of film that already had fulfilled its intended use. It seemed to be a way to generate good public relations and give a boost to the Army’s recruitment effort.
Significant film contributions from a large group of photographers from all branches of the service were assigned to document both World War II and the Korean conflict. The combat cameramen all carried handheld 35mm cameras throughout World War II and Korea and virtually all the film they shot was black and white. It allowed the cameramen to develop their film in the field before sending it back to their posts.
There had been millions of feet of 35mm film shot by the Army Signal Corps over the course of World War II. The Korean Conflict had just begun and was adding to that total. After the military was done analyzing it, the films were archived and released to the press and the public. As Broadcasting, in describing the pictures that made up the primary show elements said, “Footage has originally served military purposes for combat reports and is produced at minimum expense.” From the Army’s perspective, they were looking for a concept that would get more mileage out of this library of film and turn it into a recruiting platform.
The beginnings of the show are hazy. Like a lot of new programs transmitted on early television, life began as a local program. Chicago’s WNBQ (WMAQ) had the children’s show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” and Cleveland and Philadelphia had teen dance shows “Upbeat” (WEWS-TV) and “American Bandstand” (WFIL-TV) respectively that ran for a local audience for their first year then went nationwide.
Several sources are credited from those early days. But according to accounts from U.S. Army Press Releases (two sources – Broadcasting and Billboard trade publications) the show grew out of not one but several local programs, both live and filmed, and broadcast on WTOP-TV (now WUSA-TV) or WTTG, both in Washington.
The first of the local programs on the air was “Crisis in Korea.” The Korean Conflict began on June 25th, 1950. The television program premiered the fall of the following year. On Sunday at 1:30pm, October 7th, 1951, the thirteen week local series began on WTOP-TV. The broadcast was produced by the local Public Information Office of the Military District of Washington. (Although the Korean conflict continues to be unresolved to this day, an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. TBP provided several updates to Korea after the completion of the first 13 shows but it still is sometimes referred to as “The Forgotten War”). The film was coupled with live in-studio interviews with soldiers who were there.
The name associated with most of these early shows is that of Lieutenant Carl Bruton. Up until the Army started taking advantage his talents, Bruton had been with WTVJ in Miami, Florida. As the Radio-TV officer for the Military District of Washington (DC), Lt. Bruton began directing the local “Crisis in Korea” shows. Later on he produced and directed succeeding shows, “Meet the Troops” (also for WTOP-TV, February, 1952), 13 programs designed to give the public a close-up view of Army life and “The Blue Badge” (for WTTG (TV), May, 1952), a series of documentaries showing combat divisions in action during World War II. These local shows were meant to service both the heavy military population residing in the Washington area but also the civilian population as well. “Crisis in Korea” was the basis of the first 13 shows for TBP however the other two shows also contributed to inspirations after the initial Korea series came to an end.
But could the programs be a national show? As it would provide an outlet for the huge film library that continued to grow the cost would not be a factor. The local program had also received high Pulse and Hooper ratings (ratings services before Neilson’s). Public interest in the Korea campaign had the public’s attention across the country. In view of the high ratings, the attention of Colonel Edward M. Kirby, chief of the Radio-TV Branch, Office of Public Information, Department of the Army got involved.
Videotape was still almost five years away so the local program was being done live with film being rolled in on cue. At this time, no kinescopes have been discovered which would counter this. Image degradation of the combat footage would happen if kinescopes were involved.
Given the state of the art, the only answer was to reshoot the interviews and opens and closes on a sound stage using 35mm film. This would tie the interviews together seamlessly with the original 35mm action footage shot by the combat photographers.
Enter the Signal Corps Photographic Center (AKA the Army Pictorial Center). In February, 1942, the Army purchased a film studio from Paramount Pictures. They opened the SCPC to train draftees to shoot documentation and make training films. When it opened three months later it became the home of Army training in everything photographic – from training combat cameramen to shooting training films on its many stages to editing and laboratory work. It became “home to filmmakers and still photographers who covered the war and who produced countless training films.”
The Paramount lot was a complete motion picture facility and a historic one at that. The Astoria Studios on Long Island opened in 1920 for the Famous Players Film Company later becoming Paramount Pictures Corporation. Adolph Zuckor, the legendary film mogul was the president, a title he held until his death in 1936. New York was the mecca for filmmaking in the silent era. It was home to actors Gloria Swanson, the Gish sisters (Dorothy and Lillian), W.C. Fields and Rudolph Valentino before they moved west.
When the “talkies” came in, the studio was able to draw from Broadway. The Marx Brothers made their first movies (“The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers”) at Astoria while they continued performing on the Broadway stage. Astoria was also home to the Paramount short films division and Paramount Newsreels. By 1932, Paramount moved all studio operations to Hollywood and turned Astoria over to independent productions whose films were released through Paramount until the Army’s Signal Corps took over shortly after Pearl Harbor.
Under Kirby’s direction, TBP production moved from Washington to New York. To improve the technical quality of the program “the Army transferred the entire show – thirteen weeks of films and guests – to the soundstages of the Signal Corps Photo Center (SCPC) in New York, for distribution as a national film series” shot in 35mm and distributed in 16mm. Col. Kirby also became the liaison with the individual stations.
Supported by scripts written by the Radio-TV branch and using the production facilities the Army Pictorial Center offered from their motion picture studio, “The Big Picture” became a pilot season of 13 episodes about the onset of hostilities and resulting military activities in Korea.
After assembling the TBP with appropriate footage from the archives and marrying it to the on camera portions, recording the narration and sound effects, laying in music stage, the completed 35mm film episode was reduced to 16mm and prints were made. Virtually every television station had at least one 16mm projector as part of their broadcast sources (called a film chain).
The release prints were not sent out on a one to one basis. Stations would have to “bicycle” the prints (Bicycle is a syndication term for shipping prints between television stations). Rather than have 60 prints made to send to all stations subscribing to TBP, lack of funds limited the number to 18 prints to be shared among the 60+ stations. Presumably that number increased as the station penetration grew larger.
In Broadcasting magazine Lt. Bruton is credited as creator of “The Big Picture” and stayed on as technical advisor as the production grew. But as the program evolved from a live/film local show to nationally syndicated weekly offering meant more hands needed to get involved.
Captain Carl Zimmerman was the writer and became the initial host for the first year of episodes of TBP. He introduces the film that in turn is narrated by an unidentified professional voice talent. Cpt. Zimmerman also does the interviews on the set with combat veterans who were on site in Korea at the activity being covered.
Later different hosts were added, most notably Master Sergeant Stuart Queen who began a long association with the program.
TBP’s run began with its first station, WCBS-TV in New York City. The Federation Bank & Trust Co. sponsored the entire 13 week schedule. The first show was aired on a Sunday, December 30th, 1951, from 2-2:30 pm. By January, 1952, fifty-one local stations had scooped the weekly offering up and were committed to carrying the show. Quickly the numbers continued to rise. By March 31st, 1952, 83 stations (out of 108 licensees on the air nationwide) were airing the TBP show.
Week after week, TBP aired on as many as 366 television stations over the course of its run. Some markets, like Chicago and Baltimore, had multiple stations airing the program at different times a day and different days of the week. “Ratings as high as 13.5 have been achieved by the program.”
On the station side, the program offered the some ad revenue as well as some prestige, how could it not win? And add to that the good ratings it was getting considering the type of show it was and stations continued to sign up quickly.
When the truce was signed in Korea, coverage of the conflict would show up every once in a while. However, everything from the Boy Scouts to life in Europe to how the army designs and builds its munitions arsenal provided supplementary material that became worthy of a thirty-minute visit. Stories ran the gamut of possibilities. Every aspect of the Army involvement was fair game for the cameras.
As color television became more popular across America, the programs switched from black and white to a mix of color and black & white film. To save on the production costs of color, in house work used 16mm color stock for TBP assignments. In the sixties a new look for the open was designed and opened the program with a stylized world supplanting the original spinning globe and the “Big Picture” in bold letters.
After World War II and Korea, the Army Pictorial Center missions continued to be oriented toward training and generated approximately 300 to 350 projects in some phase of production per fiscal year with over 600 complete reels a year. Film was being processed at the rate of four to five million feet per month. In 1970 the Army phased out the Signal Corps Photographic Center and moved the facilities to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. The operation was converted to government owned and contractor operated.
The facility remains a television and film production center. Although when the Army declared it surplus in 1970, it took about twelve years to get reestablished. In the interim, some work was done and it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. It took until 1982 to get title transferred to the City of New York and real estate developer George S. Kaufman in partnership with Alan King, Johnny Carson and others obtained the lease from the City. A list of many of the many film and television shows produced at the studio can be obtained here.
The Big Picture can still be seen via You Tube or through Amazon.com. Many of the episodes can be downloaded from the “FedFlix” archive. Some titles can be traced through this APC website.
Also, you can look up the segments that were hosted by names that either had earned or were about to earn a national reputation. That includes John Wayne, Lorne Greene, Vic Morrow, Audie Murphy and Henry Fonda. Dick Cavett had a bit part playing a cadet in an unidentified episode and Johnny Crawford who had played Chuck Connors’ son in the Rifleman but spent his Army time as an enlisted employee in the studio.
I should take a moment to observe that, even though many sites reference a network run either on ABC or CBS, “The Big Picture” was a syndicated program through out its lifespan. The network schedules I’ve researched back this up. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please leave a comment on the article.