Dave Garroway and the interview with the chimpanzee during coverage of a royal matter of state. That bizarre incident drives home just how commercial and irreverent American television had become by 1953, when NBC and CBS went head-to-head to get the first pictures and best coverage of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, one of the first great global television events.
In a 2,000-word feature June 3, 1953, Variety London correspondent Harold Myers detailed, on tight deadline and dictated over a trunk call, both the hoopla surrounding the ceremony and its impact on all manner of media.
“The registers of the major West End hotels look like a deluxe edition of Who’s Who of the World,” he wrote, “but sprinkled generously throughout each of them are the names of many of the most prominent personalities in the show world.” These included Bing Crosby, Hermione Gingold, David Selznick and Jennifer Jones, plus Bogie and Bacall, to name only a few.
It was a huge challenge for BBC television.
“Coverage of today’s coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was the greatest test for BBC TV, which assigned every available camera and technician to the job. The viewing audience in Britain alone was expected to reach 27 million — more than half the population,” the paper said.
The program also was beamed live across the channel to cities in France, Holland and West Germany.
But that was simple compared to logistics to transmit the ceremony across the Atlantic.
Before the queen was crowned in Westminster Abbey on June 2, the first helicopter took off (with the first images of the regal carriage ride) from BBC headquarters at Alexandra Palace to London Airport, where the cans were transferred to a jet bomber that flew direct to Goose Bay, Labrador. There other jets were standing by for the last stage of the journey to New York and Montreal, for nationwide hookups.
Page one of the same issue carried the story of the unprecedented one-upmanship between NBC and CBS over the event — and how their efforts went up in ether.
The Peacock’s jet flight from Goose Bay to Boston had to make an emergency landing on an isle off the coast of Maine before taking off again; CBS’ plane came in late as well.
ABC had sat out this battle, opting simply to use the footage sent to Montreal for the Canadian CBC via an AT&T facility.
Variety also reported that NBC had secretly hired a jet to carry footage from Black Bush Airport near London, but it was forced to turn back because of a fuel leak. With few options left, NBC brass sheepishly called ABC to ask to use the Alphabet’s Canadian-arranged footage.
ABC went on the air with the first images at 4:14 that afternoon; NBC a few minutes later and CBS several minutes after that.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, the BBC made history, attracting its biggest outside broadcast audience ever and winning kudos for the breadth of its coverage and its technical firsts.
As for the chimp incident, it could be read in two different ways: It either points up just how far proprieties were falling in the race for ratings, or just how much those Brits still stood on ceremony.
Per a Variety squib deep inside headlined “The Chimpanzee and the Queen,” the paper reported that Garroway incurred the wrath of the BBC by integrating a chimpanzee interview into the festive coverage on “The Today Show.”
Said the paper, “BBC feels that the network went completely off base in maintaining proper dignity.”
Still, Variety‘s final assessment the next week: the CBS-NBC rivalry “has given the event the best possible coverage the American public could get despite all of the physical handicaps, and has created larger audiences through wider interest.”