Television: Uniting America Since 1951

It has been said there is nothing like TV to bring people together. Whether a national emergency or a national event, everyone is together, in the same living room, watching the same thing. The Super Bowl. Man on the Moon. The OJ Car Chase. New Year’s Eve.

New Year’s Eve. Hundreds of thousands of people pack into tiny pens in Times Square to wait for the Ball to drop. Millions of people watch for that same moment, on TV. In the hours leading up to midnight, the various networks cut away to acts and talent performing across town and across the country in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Key West, among other spots. In many cases, the networks go to a split screen format, allowing us to see footage from two cities at the same time.

Waiting for the ball to drop, watching the networks move between cities, it made me think about some of the origins of broadcast TV, when the whole country saw the same images at the same time, from coast to coast. The point of broadcast was that a nation was beamed the same shows at the same time. Right? So the whole country has been watching the ball drop, together, since the start of TV?

Prior to 1950, most TV shows originated live from New York City.  They were seen live in the Eastern and Central time zones. The West Coast was forced to watch a lesser quality version, taped via Kinescope which was essentially a low quality film made from a monitor, and sometimes had to wait a few days or weeks for the show.

That all changed on September 4, 1951 with the first transcontinental TV transmission. President Harry S. Truman made a speech in San Francisco and it was broadcast in an unheard of 47 cities in America. Made possible by a microwave technology relay from San Francisco to Chicago and coaxial cable from Chicago to New York, the President announced the end of the American occupation of Japan, post World War II.

About a year later, on November 18, 1951, Edward R. Murrow hosted the first episode of the series “See it Now” on CBS. It began with a live, coast-to-coast TV transmission: both the East Coast and the West Coast were on the same screen at the same time. Split screen! From the east, the Brooklyn Bridge was on one monitor, and from the west, we see the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Murrow was in the studio with Don Hewitt, who went on to fame with the show “60 Minutes”.

Back to Times Square and the Ball, NBC began broadcasting coverage of the drop beginning in the 1940s, though it was not available nationally. CBS featured bandleader Guy Lombardo and New Year’s festivities from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel from 1956 to 1976. Dick Clark and his New Year’s Eve show began on NBC in 1972 and then moved to ABC, where he hosted the show annually until his death in 2012.

Speaking of dropping the ball, we all did see Mariah Carey, correct?

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