The Great Paris Blackout of 1959

It had all the makings of television history. For the first time, a regularly-scheduled program would not only originate from overseas, but it would do so through a series of fascinating new technologies that would revolutionize the medium. That’s what Today had planned for April 1959, when its producers planned to originate the show from Paris, France. But what should have been a triumph instead was a fiasco involving a network, a broadcast union, and Brigitte Bardot. Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? But it happened.

To give you the whole picture, let’s begin with a little bit of technological history. For much of the 1950s, getting pictures from Europe to America had been lengthy and complicated. Communications satellites were years away. Transatlantic cable lines had nowhere near the bandwidth for live television. In 1953, CBS and NBC had raced to get films of the Coronation on the air, which turned into a giant and expensive mess involving jet bombers, chartered P-51s, and two television networks desperate to be first. (That whole story, a particular favorite of mine, is worth a blog post of its own, but it didn’t involve Dave Garroway all that much; instead I’ll refer you to this story from someone who was there. And this one is pretty darn good, too.)

There had been a couple of major advances since the Coronation race. For one, commercial jet service between Europe and New York, which in 1953 had been in the teething stages, was now routine. It would be easy to have footage flown back on a scheduled flight to New York. The other big innovation was the dawn of videotape. Today had already moved to previous-day taping the year before, so it was nothing new. But it added new flexibility to an overseas remote. Today segments, or entire shows done live-to-tape, could be recorded and the videotapes sent to New York, ready to put on the air just as any other Today program would be at the time.

But all this raised another issue. Sending NBC mobile units to Paris would be a huge and expensive logistical effort. Budgets were already tight, and Jack Paar had to cancel a planned series of shows from Paris due to budget issues. The Today adventure had itself been at risk for a period. The services of Intercontinental Television were contracted for production of the Paris remotes, using what was billed as “a 15-ton, 35-foot, self-contained mobile videotape unit.”

Garroway told AP television writer Charles Mercer what he hoped to achieve. “I want to show Paris to Americans in the way that only television can,” he said. “Tape, you know, has a live quality unlike film.” Garroway envisioned going to a different spot in Paris each day and doing the program from there. “There won’t be any editing or retakes. I’ll talk and interview people and generally be a guy showing Paris to friends back home.” NBC’s publicity held out promises of such famous sights as the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Left Bank, the Eiffel Tower, and others. The usual Today hosts – Garroway, Jack Lescoulie, and Charles Van Doren – would do stories from around the city, while the role of “Today Girl” would be filled each day by a different French actress. The first program, to be aired Monday, April 27, would feature an interview with actress Brigitte Bardot.

While the Bardot interview would make headlines that Monday, it wasn’t for reasons she, Garroway, or NBC anticipated.

At 7 a.m. that morning, at the time Today was to go on the air, the NBC employees responsible for airing the tape walked off their jobs. As members of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, they claimed the tape had been produced with the help of non-union French personnel in violation of NABET’s contract with NBC. In solidarity, NABET workers with the NBC Radio Network also walked out. In all, about 1,500 workers across NBC’s operations nationwide walked out that morning, including engineers, news writers, traffic and communications personnel, operations directors, and even publicists and air-conditioning technicians.

NABET spokesman Tyler Byrne claimed that NBC was in violation of its contract with the union regarding video tape jurisdiction. Byrne said that NBC had promised to use union technicians and had taken nine union members to Paris, but claimed that many technical jobs were being done by local men being paid “coolie rates.” Byrne charged NBC with using a “runaway shop” approach on the Paris remotes, and warned, “If the networks find it cheaper to produce video tape abroad it will result in unemployment and cutbacks among workers here.” (The president of Intercontinental Television later claimed his workers were paid equal or higher to the NABET personnel, and that they belonged to the French union.)

NABET had initially called the walkout a “no-work period” so workers could write grievance letters, but later conceded it to be a general strike. Picketers outside NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza carried signs reading “lockout.” But NBC countered, “They simply walked off their jobs. There was no lockout.” NBC held that the tapes made in Paris were done in compliance with its contract with NABET, and threatened to sue.

For three hours, NBC network programs were off the air. There was no Today program in most markets. KSD-TV in St. Louis found itself having to fill time with old films from its film library. WINR-TV in Binghamton, New York aired several films, whose subjects included the Sea Scouts, diesel engines, and even one about men cooking, during the time Today would have been on the air. On radio, the biggest loss was NBC’s five-minute News on the Hour updates at the top of each hour, so the effect was limited on that side of the network.

Not until 10 am that morning did supervisory personnel have both networks back to regular operations. The television network had Dough-Re-Mi airing on time at 10 am, and News on the Hour and other news programs were back on the air soon. The Associated Press reported “there were occasional fluffs,” and noted that NBC had received calls from ad agencies complaining about commercials being inserted abruptly, appearing dim, or not having sound. (At least one of Kermit Schaefer’s “Blooper” record collections includes a clip from a News on the Hour from that day, with audio from another circuit intruding on Howard Reig reading the sponsor billboard.)

NBC hoped to work out an agreement with NABET before the next morning, but had plans in place to make sure Today got on the air as scheduled the next morning. As it happened, no agreement was reached, so network supervisors were at the controls the next morning and Today aired as scheduled. Part of that morning’s program included the Bardot interview that hadn’t aired the day before. Meanwhile, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service scheduled a sit-down between NBC and NABET that morning. An hour and twenty minutes of meeting later, nothing was accomplished, and NBC filed a $500,000 suit against NABET. On May 5, it rescinded the NABET contract and invited negotiations for a new contract.

Two days later, NABET employees picketed the Emmy Awards in Hollywood and New York. Three of the marchers in Hollywood wore black tie. Finally, on May 14 NBC and NABET reached an agreement, and operations began to get back to normal. No longer were salesmen having to do double duty as cameramen.

As for the program that started the whole affair? Television critic John Crosby wrote, “One can’t escape the impression that this is the sort of thing television should have been doing all along – bringing a city like Paris right into your living rooms with live cameras (even if the show is on tape.)”

SOURCES:

  • Associated Press, “Fluffs Mark Strike Of Television Crews,” Dover, Ohio Daily Reporter, Apr. 28, 1959, 1.
  • Associated Press, “Garroway TV Show Aired, Despite Row,” San Mateo, Calif. Times, Apr. 28, 1959, 23.
  • Associated Press, “NBC Rescinds Union Contract,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, May 6, 1959, 33.
  • Associated Press, “NBC Technicians Quit in New York,” Muncie Star Press, Apr. 28, 1959, 1.
  • Associated Press, “Sudden Strike Disrupts NBC’s TV, Radio Chains,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 27, 1959, 1.
  • Associated Press, “TV Pickets Dress Right,” Klamath Falls, Or. Herald and News, May 7, 1959, 3.
  • Associated Press, “U.S. Mediators Try to Settle Strike of Technicians at NBC,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 28, 1959, 2.
  • John Crosby, “Garroway View of Paris in the Spring,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 29, 1959, 72.
  • John Crosby, “Tape Crews, Crowds Raise Issue of Reality,” Hartford Courant, May 4, 1959, 17.
  • Charles Mercer, “Dave Garroway Has Interesting Theory,” Pensacola News Journal, Mar. 5, 1959, 59.
  • “Monday Television Highlights,” Salem, Oregon Statesman Journal, Apr. 26, 1959, 36.
  • “Strike Over Paris ‘Tape’ Ties Up NBC.” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 28, 1959, 54.
  • Marie Torre, “‘Maverick’ Garner To Gambol,” Rochester, NY Democrat and Chronicle, Feb. 26, 1959, 40.
  • Marie Torre, “Video Strike Yields Laughs Too,” Rochester, NY Democrat and Chronicle, May 15, 1959, 8.
  • United Press, “Bardot Tape Brings TV Strike,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Apr. 28, 1959, 2.
  • United Press, “NBC, Union Negotiators In Accord,” Tucson Daily Citizen, May 15, 1959, 30.
  • United Press, “Strike Hits NBC, Protests Bardot Interview in Paris,” Binghamton, NY Press and Sun-Bulletin, Apr. 27, 1959, 1.

Another time capsule

Time got away from us here at Garroway At Large World Headquarters, and the Wide Wide Blog has suffered as a result. Last week I had to take a trip to conduct research on my other project. (Maybe I’ll write something about that project in a future post. It’s pretty interesting.)

To make up for my absence, here’s a really big present for you. Perhaps the best way for you to get a glimpse of what the Garroway magic was like, as it happened, is to unplug yourself from the present, journey back to November 1957, and enjoy Garroway and friends in long form. (Note: the title gets it wrong – that’s Kokomo Jr. and not Muggs – but don’t let that distract you.)