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A World in Color

What did TV news mean to the boomers? Just about everything. Reflections of an anchor.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, a friend delivered a box to the door of our three-bedroom ranch in Elmira, N.Y. The knowing smile on my father’s face indicated he had arranged the surprise delivery of this massive container, topped with a stick-on red bow and bearing the typeface of a new Japanese electronics manufacturer, Panasonic. The mere sight of it made my mother burst into tears. One part of her reaction was rooted in the realization that her husband, a frugal New Englander with the spending habits of a Calvinist and the bearing of Calvin Coolidge, had spent a sizable sum and taken great pains to surprise his family. But mostly, my mother wept because she was so happy at the prospect of finally seeing the outside world in living colour, from our den.

I was the last kid in my class to make the leap from black and white. I was, more than any kid I knew, obsessed and fascinated at what television had to offer, and the places it could take me. I grew up in the blue glow of the television, in a home where dinner could not be served until the nightly news was over. I noted early on that more often than not, the flicker of light against the window in Mrs. Jenkins’s house next door – a mere six feet from our window – matched what was showing on our TV. I knew it meant we were watching the same thing.

While JFK’s funeral dwells in our generational memory in black and white, many Americans watched the later ‘60s in colour. The blood draining from Bobby Kennedy’s head in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel was a deep red, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s had been on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel. Our diagonally measured 19-inch newcomer, attached to a rusted rooftop antenna, brought the world to the Williams family in that kind of stark detail; there were gallons of blood in grim dispatches from Vietnam and from campus riots. Watching Huntley, Brinkley and Cronkite, I knew that my life’s goal – my secret, outlandish dream – was to somehow join their ranks.

As the years flew by, so did the images – the explosive orange flame of the mighty Saturn rocket, the sweaty upper lip of a president making his White House retreat in a white-topped helicopter. There was a constant in our house and millions of others: the network evening newscasts, programs that gave our nation a collective viewing experience every night. They were sober broadcasts – often merely a sea of sober-faced white men in white shirts covering similarly colourless hearings on Capitol Hill – but they formed what the late Peter Jennings called “the gateway to the American evening.” That’s the way it is, we were told. From there, we were free to escape to “Gunsmoke” and “Laugh-In” and “Mannix”.

I don’t know exactly how it is that we are now watching feature films on iPods. While I watched it happen, slowly, and over several decades, I don’t remember the last day I got up and walked across the room to manually change the channel. I don’t remember the first cable box arriving, or the jump from 20 channels to 900.

I do know that when we gather for our morning editorial meeting each day, to begin the process of deciding what our 9.4 million nightly viewers will see, it’s seldom the case that two or more of us watched the same thing on television the night before.

My wife often watches her own husband’s broadcast on our kitchen computer screen, after 10 at night, when the day’s work is done. My high-school-age son will occasionally catch a glimpse. My daughter at college says she enjoyed my last appearance on “The Daily Show.” I don’t want to ask when she last watched “Nightly News.”

Our audience today is smaller, but it is fiercely loyal and expects a serious newscast. Friends report a new dynamic in their lives: as they get older, they find themselves watching the newscast they grew up with – when they’re home to see it. Venerable names like Google notwithstanding, the three network evening newscasts still represent the largest single news audience in the nation.

On that Christmas Eve night in 1968, we turned on our new television set at the moment when the Apollo 8 astronauts read from Genesis after orbiting the moon for the first time. The first colour television picture in our home was of our world. There was no way I could know, inside our cramped, glowing den on that cold night in upstate New York, that I would someday circle that very same planet several times over as a journalist. I remain fascinated at what television has to offer, and the places it can take me.

By Brian Williams, Newsweek, November 13, 2006