Huntley – Brinkley Report

The Huntley-Brinkley Report (sometimes known as The Texaco Huntley-Brinkley Report, for one of its early sponsors) was the NBC television network’s flagship evening news program from October 29th, 1956, until July 31st, 1970.  It was anchored by Chet Huntley in New York City, and David Brinkley in Washington, D.C.  It succeeded the Camel News Caravan, anchored by John Cameron Swayze.  The program ran for 15 minutes at its inception but expanded to 30 minutes on September 9th, 1963, exactly a week after CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite did so.  It was developed and produced initially by Reuven Frank.  Frank left the program in 1962 to produce documentaries (Eliot Frankel replaced him) but returned to the program the following year when it expanded to 30 minutes.  He was succeeded as executive producer in 1965 by Robert “Shad” Northshield and in 1969 by Wallace Westfeldt.

By 1956, NBC executives had grown dissatisfied with Swayze in his role anchoring the network’s evening news program, which fell behind its main competition, CBS’s Douglas Edwards with the News, in 1955.  Network executive Ben Park suggested replacing Swayze with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who had garnered favorable attention anchoring NBC’s coverage of the national political conventions that summer.  Bill McAndrew, NBC’s director of news (later NBC News president), had seen a highly rated local news program on NBC affiliate WSAZ-TV in Huntington, West Virginia, with two anchors reporting from different cities.  He replaced Camel News Caravan with the Huntley-Brinkley Report, which premiered on October 29th, 1956, with Huntley in New York and Brinkley in Washington.  Producer Reuven Frank, who had advocated pairing Huntley and Brinkley for the convention coverage, thought using two anchors on a regular news program “was one of the dumber ideas I had ever heard.”  Nonetheless, on the day of the new program’s first broadcast, Frank authored the program’s closing line, “Good night, Chet.  Good night, David.  And good night, for NBC News.”  This exchange became one of television’s most famous catchphrases even though both Huntley and Brinkley initially disliked it.

Huntley handled the bulk of the news most nights, with Brinkley specializing in Washington-area news (i.e., the White House, U.S. Congress, the Pentagon).  Having two anchors also helped during vacation periods; one could handle the full show if necessary, leaving viewers with a familiar anchor instead of a little-known substitute such as a field reporter.  When only Huntley or Brinkley was on the program, that one would merely say “Good night for NBC News”.  The closing credits music for the broadcast was the second movement (scherzo) of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, from the 1952 studio recording with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
Initially, the program lost audience from Swayze’s program, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower let it be known that he was displeased by the switch.   In the summer of 1957, the program had no advertisers.  As its content improved, though, it began attracting critical praise and a larger audience, and by 1958, it had pulled even with CBS’s program.  The program received a big boost when, in June 1958, Texaco began purchasing all of its advertising, an arrangement that continued for three years.

Critics considered Huntley to possess one of the best broadcast voices ever heard, and Brinkley’s dry, often witty, newswriting presented viewers a contrast to the often sober output from CBS News.  The program received a Peabody Award in 1958 for “Outstanding Achievement in News,” the awards committee noting that the anchors had “developed a mature and intelligent treatment of the news that has become a welcome and refreshing institution for millions of viewers.”  The program received the award again two years later in the same category, the committee concluding that Huntley and Brinkley had “dominated the news division of television so completely in the past year that it would be unthinkable to present a Peabody Award in that category to anybody else.”  By that time, the program had surpassed CBS’s evening news program, Douglas Edwards with the News, in ratings and maintained higher viewership levels for much of the 1960s, even after Walter Cronkite took over CBS’s competing program (initially named Walter Cronkite with the News in 1962 and renamed the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in 1963).  It received eight Emmy Awards in its 14-year run.
Huntley and Brinkley conveyed a strong chemistry, and a survey for NBC later found that viewers liked that the anchors talked to each other.  In fact, aside from their sign-off, Huntley and Brinkley’s only communication came when one anchor finished a story and handed off to the other by saying the other’s name, a signal to an AT&T technician to switch the long-distance transmission lines from New York to Washington or vice versa.  The anchors gained great celebrity, and surveys showed them better known than John Wayne, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, or the Beatles.  In 1961, Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle entertained a crowd in Washington by singing, to the tune of “Love and Marriage,” “Huntley,Brinkley/Huntley,Brinkley/One is glum, the other quite twinkly.”
Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was shown in a 1964 photograph watching the Huntley-Brinkley Report on a television backstage in his dressing room in Life magazine, who quoted him saying, “My only contact with reality. Whatever I’m doing, I stop to watch these guys.”

 

 

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