By Andy Franklin, NBC News
On September 9 in New York, friends and colleagues of Walter Cronkite will gather to remember the late newsman at a special memorial service at Lincoln Center. It's also a big day for Beatles fans: the group's entire, newly remastered catalog is being released, along with a groundbreaking new Beatles video game. Cronkite and the Beatles have crossed paths before, most recently in July, when Cronkite's passing prompted a little rewriting of Beatles history. Let's see if we can set the record straight.
CBS News went to some lengths in its tributes to Mr. Cronkite to claim that the Beatles made their American television "debut" not on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, but on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite two months earlier – a claim made on the air by Katie Couric, Anthony Mason, and, in a taped interview, by Cronkite himself. CBS also implied that Ed Sullivan first learned of the Beatles by seeing them on Cronkite's broadcast.
Both stories are untrue.
Cronkite: "The Beatles were on American television for the first time NOT, as history seems to have it recorded, on the Ed Sullivan Show, but on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. If there's some credit in history for that, I want it."
Sorry, but here are the facts:
The Beatles made their U.S. television debut on November 18, 1963, on NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report, that era's leading network evening newscast.
In the fall of 1963, Beatlemania was at full gale in England, and stories about the group had begun to appear in the United States. "Thousands of Britons 'Riot' – Liverpool Sound Stirs Up Frenzy," said the Washington Post on October 29. Time and Newsweek each ran stories in mid-November. The American television networks also took notice, and on Saturday, November 16, news crews from NBC, CBS and ABC filmed the Beatles in concert in Bournemouth, England. Two days later, NBC was first on the air with a story: a nearly four-minute piece by Edwin Newman that closed that night's Huntley-Brinkley Report. The November 18 airdate is documented in NBC's program analysis card files.
Apparently ABC never aired its footage of the Beatles during this period.
CBS says it aired a piece on the CBS Morning News on Friday November 22. It was reported by then-London bureau chief Alexander Kendrick, with a brief Beatles interview by correspondent Josh Darsa; both men are now deceased.
CBS claims the piece would then have re-aired that same night on the Evening News – six days after the concert was filmed, four days after the story ran on NBC, and even after the network's own morning show had aired the story – but for the fact that John F. Kennedy was assassinated that afternoon.
So when did the CBS Evening News air its story on the Beatles? In its prime-time tribute to Cronkite on July 19, Katie Couric said, "Later in December , Walter decided to run the piece, because he thought this was the time when Americans needed to be uplifted." This is odd, because the piece is not really uplifting; Kendrick's reporting is patronizing and dismissive, concluding that the Beatles "make non-music and wear non-haircuts." Nor was Cronkite a fan. "I did not care for the appearance of the Beatles very much," he acknowledged in 2003. "I was offended by their long hair. Their music did not appeal to me either."
Nevertheless, CBS says the Evening News aired its Beatles story on Tuesday December 10. Perhaps they were prompted by a December 1 piece in the New York Times Magazine: "Britons Succumb to 'Beatlemania.'" Or maybe they'd spotted the photo that appeared in Life magazine that week: "Princess Margaret Meets the Red-Hot Beatles." Regardless, CBS was playing catch-up on the story after being scooped by NBC.
CBS also says that Cronkite got a call from Ed Sullivan immediately after their story aired. Recalling the conversation decades later, Cronkite implied that Sullivan had never heard of the Beatles until he saw them on the Evening News. "Walter, Walter! Tell me about those kids!" Cronkite quotes Sullivan as saying. "Those kids you just had on the air, the, the, what do you call them, the Buggles or the Beatles or something."
In fact, Ed Sullivan was not only well aware of the Beatles at that point; he already had them under contract. Sullivan had first learned of the Beatles almost six weeks earlier, on October 31, while passing through London's Heathrow Airport just as the Beatles were returning from a tour of Sweden. More than 1,500 screaming fans were there to welcome the band home, and the commotion caught Sullivan's attention. Ten days later he met with Beatles manager Brian Epstein in New York, and signed the group to appear on his program an unprecedented three successive Sundays the following February.
Ed Sullivan may indeed have seen the Beatles on the CBS Evening News – or on the Huntley-Brinkley Report – in late 1963, but not before he'd booked the band himself. He may even have caught them on Jack Paar's NBC show that January 3. Still, those were all taped segments. The Beatles first live appearance on American television was, unforgettably, on the Ed Sullivan show.
The aim here is not to diminish Walter Cronkite. But neither does his reputation require any exaggeration or embellishment. Cronkite was a stickler for the facts, and the "facts" presented by CBS regarding Cronkite's connection to the Beatles are just plain wrong. Perhaps Cronkite himself mis-remembered things so many years later.
But the network he served so well for so long could have done a better job on his behalf. That's just the way it is.