John F. Kennedy TV specials abundant in next two weeks

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Rob Lowe as President John F. Kennedy in the oval office on the set of National Geographic Channels Killing Kennedy. (National Geographic Channel/Kent Eanes)

The shining moments. Oswald. The conspiracy theories. Cronkite. Ruby. Jackie. The other Kennedys. The other women. Once again, in the days ahead, television will offer reminders to older viewers and history lessons to the young.

Nov. 22 brings the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, not only a pivotal moment in U.S. history but a watershed for TV. Granted, when news of the assassination first broke, people turned to radios in their schools and workplaces to get the latest news. But overall, and even though TV had carried historic events before, the Kennedy assassination was key to what journalist Tom Wicker called “the mushroom development” of the medium.

Covering Kennedy’s funeral alone was TV networks’ “greatest challenge since the coming of television,” historian Edward Bliss Jr. later wrote. An estimated 93 percent of U.S. homes with television reportedly tuned to at least some of the coverage.

After the assassination, TV became “something like the national nervous system,” Wicker wrote at the 40th anniversary of the assassination, the way that “people everywhere realize something shocking has happened.” Of course, Wicker — who died in 2011 — was writing 10 years ago, and TV has lost much of its pre-eminence in immediacy to online news operations and social media.

But in the days ahead, TV will try to reclaim some of its place at the communal table, presenting and pondering the impact of John F. Kennedy through an array of documentaries, interviews, reminiscences and dramatizations.

In addition to specials, regular news programs will weigh in. For example, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather will be on NBC’s Today on Nov. 22 to talk about the assassination. Yes, Rather, a key player in CBS’s coverage of Kennedy’s death, will be on his old rival network. CBS chose not to include Rather in its coverage, since the anchor had a bad falling-out with CBS and later unsuccessfully sued it. He is expected to be seen on CBS in archival material.

CBS’s Face the Nation — whose host, Bob Schieffer, was in Dallas as a reporter on Nov. 22, 1963 — will be in Dallas on Nov. 17. The CBS Evening News will also be done live from that city on Nov. 22. Also on Nov. 17, This Week With George Stephanopoulos plans a tribute to and discussion about Kennedy. PBS’s Nova on Wednesday will revisit the assassination with new forensic techniques, while the network’s Frontline series replays its 1993 program, Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?

Then there are specials. After 50 years of Kennedyana, some shows will range well beyond the president himself; one PBS special looks at the journalists covering the assassination, particularly CBS’s Walter Cronkite, whose tearful announcement of JFK’s death became one of the most remembered moments from those grim November days. A TLC special turns its attention to Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination with readings of letters people sent to the former first lady. The assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is central to several programs, including the TV movie Killing Kennedy, based on a Bill O’Reilly book. The History channel examines, once again, the various conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s death.

There is the hagiography of PT 109, which Turner Classic Movies will replay, and more clear-eyed acknowledgments of Kennedy’s infidelities, physical problems and drug use in productions like Killing Kennedy and PBS’s American Experience: JFK. For those who well remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, there may be a sense of weary repetition as the shows roll by. But for a growing number of others, this is not a reminiscence as much as an attempt to understand the distant past. Consider George Clooney, host of one Kennedy program, his hair laced with gray. He was 2 years old when Kennedy was shot.

Some of the specials airing in the days ahead include the following:

• JFK: The Final Hours. 6 p.m. Sunday, National Geographic Channel. Repeat of special that premiered Friday. Interviews and archival footage trace Kennedy’s movements in the 24 hours before his death, including the stops he made in Texas before his fatal journey to Dallas. Bill Paxton, a native Texan, narrates.

• Killing Kennedy, 8 tonight, National Geographic Channel. Based on the book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, this offers parallel dramatizations of moments in the life of Kennedy (played by Rob Lowe) and Oswald (Will Rothhaar) up to and through Dallas. With Ginnifer Goodwin as Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Trachtenberg as Oswald’s wife Marina.

• American Experience: JFK. Monday and Tuesday, PBS. Five years after American Experience devoted four hours to the Kennedys for its series of presidential documentaries, it is back with four hours focused almost entirely on Kennedy through interviews, new information and archival footage.

• JFK: One P.M. Central Time. 10 p.m. Wednesday, PBS. This Secrets of the Dead special looks at how news organizations handled the news of Kennedy’s being shot, and his death, with Cronkite as the centerpiece but others — such as wire-service writer Merriman Smith — also in the mix.

• The Sixties: The Assassination of President Kennedy. 9 p.m. Thursday, CNN. First in 10-part series of documentaries about the decade, made in association with Tom Hanks’ company. This one looks not only at the killing but the Warren Commission investigation.

• As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years. 9 p.m. Saturday, CBS. Special “re-telling the past in the present tense” as it revisits events unfolding from the assassination through the funeral. Schieffer hosts.

• Fox News Reporting: 50 Years of Questions: The JFK Assassination. 9 p.m. Nov. 17, Fox News Channel. Repeat of Nov. 9 telecast, hosted by Bill Hemmer, with interviews about the investigations following the assassination, as well as O’Reilly’s comments.

• Letters to Jackie. 9 p.m. Nov. 17, TLC. Twenty celebrities — including Oscar winners Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Melissa Leo — read letters written to Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination, illustrated with vintage footage of the Kennedys.

• JFK: The Lost Tapes. 7 p.m. Nov. 21, Discovery. Audio recordings from Air Force One and the Dallas police offer another telling of the assassination. ABC’s Good Morning America will also have a report on the tapes in its telecast on the morning on Nov. 21.

• Turner Classic Movies run of JFK-themed films, Nov. 21-22. Beginning at 8 p.m. on Nov. 21 the network will air five Kennedy-related documentaries: Primary (1960), Adventures on the New Frontier (1961), Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), Faces of November (1964) and Four Days in November (1964), followed at 2:15 a.m. on Nov. 22 with PT 109, the drama starring Cliff Robertson as Kennedy in World War II.

• JFK: The Day That Changed America. 7 p.m. Nov. 22, MSNBC. Replay of Chris Matthews-hosted special made for the 40th anniversary. Followed at 8 p.m. by The Kennedy Brothers: A Hardball Documentary, from 2009.

• Tom Brokaw Special: Where Were You? 9 p.m. Nov. 22, NBC. Two-hour special combining first-person accounts of the assassination with archival images. Participants include not only famous folks but a shoe-store manager who helped catch Oswald, the widow of the police officer Oswald killed and a neurosurgeon who examined the president. There’s also a companion book, Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination, with transcripts of the NBC interviews and more.

• JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide. 8 p.m. Nov. 22, History. A look at some of the estimated 300-plus conspiracy theories about the assassination, results of a poll of people’s feelings about the conspiracies and interviews with assassination theorists of varying credibility.

• Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live, 10 p.m. Nov. 22, History. Minute-by-minute account of Oswald’s final days.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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