No Concession, No Sleep: Glued to the TV on Election Night 1960

tags: election 2016, election 1960

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, is the author of nine books.

The contest between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 1960, was expected to be close, and Americans were glued to their televisions until long after dawn. Coverage of the changing returns revealed some of the stresses and growing pains of early television news, which was little more than a decade old at the time.

NBC and CBS, wary of granting a head start to the competitor, each moved up its broadcast to the early evening from 9 p.m.

ABC News, showing how much of an also-ran it was at the time, interrupted its coverage to run episodes of “Bugs Bunny” and “The Rifleman.” This helped cause its already disgruntled vice president and anchor, John Charles Daly, to quit in protest the next week.

The Big Two news divisions paid lavishly for their election-night coverage — commercials alone would not be enough to cover all expenses. NBC opted for a new space-age set at 30 Rock. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley sat at an X-shaped desk that was suspended above the floor of Studio 8-H, now home to “Saturday Night Live.”

In 1960, “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” celebrated for its sometimes witty dialogue between the principals, was, by far, the nation’s most watched nightly news program. Huntley opened election night by telling viewers, “You may choose to do a little dial-twisting to see how our competitors are doing, but we hope and trust you’ll be back.” True to form, their election coverage drew many more viewers than that of the more old-school Walter Cronkite on CBS. ...

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