Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Where TV History Meets Real-Life History

I'm not what you'd call a history buff -- unless it's TV, movie, or radio history. But I was intrigued by the congruence of real and reel drama that you can see in this YouTube video, when one of the most famous tragedies in American history interrupts the November 22, 1963 live broadcast of As the World Turns on CBS.

Any of the many 50th-anniversary observances will remind you that President Kennedy was shot at approximately 12:30 p.m. Central Time in Dallas, just as CBS' most popular daytime soap opera was beginning its daily half-hour broadcast. How long would it take today for that news to hit TV? In 1963, it's about ten minutes before a "CBS News Bulletin" breaks into the soap opera to announce that the leader of the free world has been shot, with wounds that could be fatal. The bulletin lasts for only about a minute, before going to a commercial break. After a second update, CBS then returns to let another scene from As the World Turns play while awaiting further details. Did the actors performing in the live broadcast know what was going on in the world around them as they enacted the domestic drama of Oakdale?

As for the program that was interrupted, it's interesting to see what a typical episode of this long-running show (finally canceled in 2010) was like. Note that the opening scene, between Bob Hughes (played by Don Hastings) and his mother Nancy (Helen Wagner) runs for about four minutes -- imagine that today! -- and is a far cry from the grab-'em-by-the-throat approach needed to maintain the attention of a later video generation. After a leisurely discussion of the homemade Christmas gift Nancy is making, mother and son gradually ease into the slightly more exciting topic that is at the heart of the scene -- whether or not Bob's ex-wife Lisa and young son Tom will be attending the Hughes family's Thanksgiving dinner. It's amazing, in today's fast-paced entertainment world, that actors Wagner and Hastings would spend another forty-odd years inhabiting these characters; he was still the show's top-billed player when it left the airwaves, while she passed away only a few months earlier, having continued to appear as Nancy into her early nineties.

Although I was around in 1963, I was too young to remember "where I was," as so many people would be asked, when the news of Kennedy's assassination broke. It's a little poignant to see, all these years later, that millions of viewers were happily ensconced in Oakdale, U.S.A., worrying about nothing more pressing than how Lisa Hughes would behave at Thanksgiving dinner, when the bullets fired in Dallas changed American history.

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