Monday 18 December 2017

JFK on TV: the outside broadcasters

The stars of the JFK coverage were behind the cameras, says Paul Melia

Michael Johnston was a producer on the JFK visit
Michael Johnston was a producer on the JFK visit
Part of the RTÉ outside broadcast unit in New Ross
One of the outside broadcasting unit trucks used in the 1960s
Burt Budin in the 1960s

IT was the most ambitious project ever undertaken by RTE. The fledgling station was less than two years old when it took the bold decision to broadcast all four days of President John F Kennedy's 1963 visit to Ireland, much of it live.

The lack of equipment and outside broadcast (OB) units didn't hamper its ambitions. It hired whatever was needed to help provide hours of footage to an eager audience at home and abroad.

An army of technicians, cameramen, commentators and reporters were involved in the enormous undertaking, many of whom who would go on to become household names.

The sheer scale of the production can be seen on the first day's coverage. There was a crew in Dublin Airport including Brian Farrell and Sean MacReamoinn who provided commentary for television and radio; another followed the presidential motorcade through Dublin city centre with Micheal O'Hehir, Gay Byrne and Karl Jones reporting from O'Connell Street, switching back to Micheal O'Hehir and Terry Wogan on Dame Street before joining John Bowman at the US ambassador's residence in the Phoenix Park.

But despite the scale of the project, the crews didn't have much time to prepare.

President Kennedy wanted as many engagements as possible to be broadcast live, but his itinerary remained secret until shortly before he arrived.

Burt Budin (82), an American producer/director who joined RTE in 1961 following a career in local television in New York, recalls having about three months to set the whole thing up.

"The detailed planning didn't begin until we knew where he was going and what he was doing, and I think that was about March," he says.

"We knew the one OB (outside broadcast) unit we had wasn't going to be enough. We worked out we would need five units, and the chief engineer got them from all over – from BBC Northern Ireland, from two ITV companies and another from PYE.

"There were a couple of lashed-up units with one or two cameras as well, and I think we had 22 cameras all together. I had never done anything like this before."

The vast ambition of the project meant everything had to be planned to the last detail. Crews went to every site where the president would be appearing to set up and fix camera positions.

The cameras were often set up in advance of platforms for dignitaries being erected, because it was essential there was no glare in the shot. This meant negotiating with local councils.

Another challenge was to find a power source, so teams of ESB technicians travelled with the broadcasters to tap into a local source. In a worst-case scenario, a generator was used.

The RTE equipment was new, but some of the borrowed cameras were older and heavier.

"The BBC unit I worked in was quite old, and had old cameras I would have known several years before. They were big and heavy," Micheal Johnston (77), a producer with RTE, recalls.

"The cameras were all rigged into the unit by cables. One of the complicated things was the pictures had to be sent back to Dublin via a link network.

"One of the first things to do during the planning was having your links people find out how it would go back to the network. There were about five major television networks of radio links. The signals were sent from the OB units to these, and then transmitted back to Dublin.

"There would be cables all over the place, and they couldn't provide a danger. They would have to be fairly tightly stowed."

To reach the continent, the reports were transmitted from Dublin to Belfast, then across to the BBC in London. They were then re-transmitted to France, and sent around the world.

Three US networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, sent 30 staff to Ireland and there were some 1,200 journalists and technicians installed in the ballroom of the Gresham Hotel, which was turned into a press centre by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.

But unlike today, when cameras are smaller, lighter and can transmit remotely, moving an OB unit was a huge task.

The logistics of having a unit finishing in one place before rushing to another had to be worked out.

"They were like a big long truck," Micheal Johnston says. "They would have links gear, and maybe another vehicle with it if needed.

"When an OB unit is on the move, everything is packed into the control room vehicle. The units had to be set up and tested, which could take a day."

Money appeared to be no object.

"It was very exciting," Burt Budin says. "Everyone stood a foot taller and went with it. It was one the most exciting weeks of my life. It was just an amazing buzz.

"I don't know how RTE paid for this, or if it was a strain on resources, but there was no constraint on what we wanted to do."

Not everything was broadcast live, and a highlights package was prepared for broadcasting later in the evening when workers returned home.

There was huge interest, despite a relatively low number of homes with televisions.

In 1958, just three years prior to Telefis Eireann launching, there were some 20,000 television sets in the country. Ownership grew rapidly, rising to over half a million by 1966.

Most relied on the radio for their coverage, with half a million sets at the time of the visit.

One of Micheal Johnston's abiding memories of the trip is rushing around the country. "The idea of doing four live broadcasts in four days, all in different locations, wouldn't have been dreamt of by the BBC," he said.

"We were still starting up, and were all working ludicrous hours, but delighted to do it because it was new and exciting. It was an incredible success. There were no serious breakdowns or anything like that, and it really tested the network system."

The critics agreed. "You might style it superb, unparalleled, unsurpassed or instead you might throw away the epithets and simply say that Telefis Eireann arranged a live coverage of President Kennedy's visit that was worth of the great occasion," the Irish Independent noted.

"In either case, you would be right."

Irish Independent

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