It was - The Night the Networks Went DEAD.
And before it was over, Roger Mudd of CBS was crawling down a hotel staircase lighting matches like crazy: ABC's David Hartman was bobbing out of the city in a small private plane; and the NBC's Tom Brokaw was trying frantically to alert passers-by that he was TRAPPED in the basement and had to get out to do the "Today" show.
And a darkness had come upon the city. And a darkness had come upon television. For the first time since 1965, a New York power failure had knocked all three networks off the air at once, plunging a nation into bewilderment. Three of our networks were missing.
This was serious!
At least 80 per cent of viewing nation found itself staring bewildered at screens that said, "Please Stand By." For New Yorkers this was a civic crisis. For America it was a media thrombosis. What could be powerful enough to stop all three networks?
The Commies? The Martians? The Congress? Darth Vader?
Newsmen were calling it "as act of God." Ohhhh.
It was at 9:35 Wednesday night that the networks "went down," as they say in the business, and it was seven minutes before auxiliary power brought them back again, even while the rest of New York sat in the dark.
Paul Friedman, producer of the "Today" show, thought his work day was over. He had just seen the movie "New York, New York" ("which was dreadful") and had taken his wife to dinner at a candlelit Chinese restaurant.
LITTLE DID HE KNOW what terror awaited him.
"Fortunately, we were throught the main course when the thing hit," he recalls now, hungry again. "Suddenly we heard this waiter talking very excitedly in Chinese. We didn't know what he was talking about. Then another waiter started shouting, 'Whole city! Whole city!'
"I turned to my wife and said, 'You see, that's how rumors get started.'"
The first TV blackout came while "Baretta" was chasing a crook, an Italian and a Jew were falling in love on "The CBS Thursday Night Movie," and Christine Belford and Robert Foxworth were trying to wring a few laughs from an NCB sitcom.
There were more shock waves to come. Farrah Fawcett-Majors was cleverly conning a crook when WHAM!, the screen went dary again.
Among those who learned about the power failure at that moment was Richard L. Dunham, chairman of the Federal Power Commission. He'd been watching "Charlie's Angeles" at home. ABC later snared him for an interview at 3 o'clock in the morning.
When darkenss struck, the network news departments sprung into action. They love being able to prove themselves in a crisis. After the 1965 blackout, NBC had installed two 1975 gallon tanks of diesel fuel near a roof garden on the 10th floor of the RCA building to power emergency generators. This brought light and power to several key floors of the building.
CBS and ABC had a little more trouble getting back on the air, though both also have emergency generators. But all the networks had to wait until the emergency power clicked in at a telephone company outpost several blocks away; it's through this relay station that network signals no-so-magically make their ways to affiliated stations.
Even though the networks were able to broadcast to the rest of the country, they couldn't get an audience in New York. None of the TV sets were working, for one thing. But the network-owned local stations weren't working either. All their transmitters are in the Empire State Building, which was as dead as a rather large doornail.
"Yeah, we lost The Empire," a network engineer lamented the next day. They call it "The Empire," you see.
It didn't take Roger Mudd, in New York to replace vacationing Walter Cronkite on "The CBS Evening News," long to realize that something was wrong. He was staying on the 35th floor of the Essex House hotel, and when he got into the hallway, he found it pitch black.
Mudd began lighting matches to find his way to the stairway. The stairway was also pitch black. So he began the long, arduous - virtually perilous - descent, lighting his precious remaining matches and trying to figure out how many stairs in each flight and which floor he was on.
Problem: Was there a 13th in this hotel or not? Some hotels don't have one. He thought. He calculated. He groped along. He was running out of matches. But by his count, he had now reached the 11th floor.
He lit a match. He saw a sign. It said, "18." This was an unforseen development. But at least he was going in the right direction.
David Hartman, who lives in Manhattan, would have been in the dark, too, except that a collegue once gave him a toy safety kit as a gag and there happened to be a flashlight in it. Reconnotering with producer Woody Fraser, it was decided that "Good Morning, America" would originate from Washington the next morning, no New York. Nobody knew how long the power would be out or how much the emergency power could be counted on. ABC was in fact importing a duplicate feed of its programming from Los Angeles just in case.
But Hartman knew there had to be a "Good Morning, America," no matter what. Hell, they'd do a doomsday edition if they had to. The networks pride themselves on their ability to keep going and making money.
So Hartman, Fraser and a few other staff members chartered a small plane and took off from tiny, teeming Teeterboro Airport in New Jersey at 1 o'clock in the morning.
In Washington, show staff members even managed to roust a couple of congressmen at 2 a.m. so they could be interviewed about the power failure for the show.
And what those poor souls, the viewers? There was no evidence of widespread panic. Not even when Baretta's voice began to slowwww dowwwnnn just before he got zapped, though stations got lots of phone calls. Certainly Washington viewers must have been initially baffled, especially if they were watching the CBS movie "Made for Each Other" on Channel 9.
At 9:35 the movie expired. A "Please Stand By" slide appeared with a taped announcer saying, "We are experiencing difficulties. Please stand by." This was repeated and repeated. Finally the station began running public announcements. Attempts by the network to return continued fitfully until about 10 p.m.
Then Channel 9 tried to present a special report on the blackout.This began on the wrong foot with a taped announcer saying, "This has been a special report from Television 9."
Then there was Gordon Peterson saying, "Hello, I'm Gordon Peterson." Max Robinson chimed in later. "If this were New York, there would be no 'Eye Witness News.'"
During one of the network voids, Channel 9 viewers were treated briefly to a pas de deux from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," a standby record for use during audio and vidoe failure, the station threw on a standby featurette, "The Old Ball Game." Viewers who'd been watching the Italian-Jewish shouting match in "Made for Each Other" were suddenly confronted with the sight of Babe Ruth talking with youngsters in a children's hospital.
CBS affiliate WMAR-TV in Baltimore got so tired of the movie cutting in and out that a 10:35 they just put on an old rerun of "My Three Sons." More than an hour later, after that station's local newscast, they dizzily brought back the last few reels of "Made for Each Other."
Brokaw said later that he got the attention of a man on the street and expected New York's famous espirit-under-fire to rescue him; but when he asked the man to get the building superintendent, the man just stared at him, then got in his car and drove away.
Twenty minutes later, Brokaw tried to convince a woman that he was needed at a famous television network, but she asked, "Why should I get involved?" Finally "I decided to try giving orders." Brokaw says, and the woman at last went around and notified the super.
Then, a he was rescued, Brokaw heard the woman say to him, "You're sure lucky I came along."
Brokaw told "Today" show viewers, "We're here in what can only be described as the back of the bus." Because emergency power was low, producer Friedman had to liberate a tiny old NBC studio that hadn't even been used in a year. Edwin newman used to sit in it and do news updates - one man, one camera. Now it was holding three people, three cameras.
And though the air conditioning was working just fine in the control room, it wasn't working at all in the studio. So Brokaw, Jane Pauley and Gene Shalit sat stifling and huddled behind a tiny desk with only an old-fashioned fan to cool them under the lights.
When the city first went dark, the obvious challenge was to get pictures. A roving ABC film crew saw a young boy trying to flag a cab by waving just one little candle. They shot the picture, but when it was developed, all you see was the flame.
Obviously lighting just one little candle won't get you on network TV.
The news staff had arrived at CBS-owned WCBS in New York only to find out the station was off the air. But they did part of their 11 o'clock news, anyway; WTOP decided to air it in Washington. WCBS newsmen Dave Marish and Jim Jensen, tie-less and smoking, did it in laid-back style from their newsroom.
It was WTOP executive news director John Baker's ide, but it wasn't easy. There was the little matter of who could get permission to carry the New York newscast here. Baker finally went right to the top - CBS president Robert Wussler. And in a friendly spirit of cooperation, Wussler said, "Nothing doing."
Fortunately for Baker, the producer of the WCBS news show never heard about that decisions. And the show went on.
Power came back to CBS at 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon. It looked like the NIGHT OF TERROR was over. But then something happened to the signal again and WTOP again found itself without a network. "We had trouble with 'All in the FamilY," then we lost 'Match Game,'" so we just decided to roll 'Dinah,'" a station spokesman explained. "Dinah" is the station's own Dinah Shore show.
The pas de deux from "The Nutcracker" was not required again, however.
CBS reporter Morton Dean, up all night, went home to sack out. Same for ABC's Frank Reynolds, who'd been first on the air. New ABC News chief Roone Arlege sent a "well done telegram" to his Washington bureau. Friedman, up since 6 a.m. Wednesday, started putting the Friday "Today" show together.
And people searched their souls and the heavens for explanations. Why? Why? Who would want to do this to Our Networks?
At an NBC press party in the RCA building Wednesday night to promote and upcoming special called "Tut: The Boy King," the Sixty Earl of Carnarvon was recalled how his father had excavated King Tut's tomb and thereby fallen under the curse. The night dad died in Cairo, said Lord Carnarvon, the lights went out in Cairo, mysteriously, for a few minutes.
One hour after the party broke up, the lights went out in new York. "Could that be the Curse of King Tut?" an NBC staff member asked later.
And then of course there's that all-important network topic, money. This ABC broadcast operations president Jules Barnathan. "It won't cost much. We backed up the programs to where they were when we went off the air."
But what about the lost commercials? "To the best of my knowledge," said Barnathan, with the satisfaction of a man who had survived hell on earth utterly unscratched, "we got every one of them in."
The networks had come BACK from the DEAK.