On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, the turgid melodrama of “As the World Turns” was suddenly interrupted by grave news from the real world. In Dallas, three shots had been fired at President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade. Fifty-eight minutes later, a visibly moved Walter Cronkite would confirm the unthinkable: The president was dead.
For the ensuing three days, Americans gathered around their televisions in a rite of collective mourning as the three broadcast networks abandoned their regularly scheduled programming to provide uninterrupted news coverage. From Nov. 22 through 25, 1963, 96 percent of TV-owning households tuned in for an average of more than 31 hours apiece, and a record-setting 41.5-million television sets were in use during the president’s funeral Monday afternoon.
Fittingly, the 50th anniversary of the assassination will be commemorated by the medium it helped define, because a veritable avalanche of JFK-related programming is scheduled to hit the airwaves in the coming weeks. CBS, NBC and PBS have prime-time specials in the works, as do the cable news outlets and a host of other channels, including History, Discovery, National Geographic and Discovery.
It seems there’s a flavor of Kennedy coverage for every palate, from “Letters to Jackie” on TLC for first-lady fanatics to “JFK: The Smoking Gun,” for the more conspiracy-minded, on Reelz.
One time-honored approach is to involve big-name celebrities, however indirectly. CNN has “The Sixties: The Assassination of President Kennedy” (Nov. 17), the first installment of a 10-part documentary series produced by Tom Hanks, who will also appear, along with Steven Spielberg, in NBC’s “Tom Brokaw Special: Where Were You?” (Nov. 22).
Hanks notwithstanding, the JFK project with the most name recognition may be “Killing Kennedy,” premiering Nov. 10 on National Geographic Channel and adapted from the nonfiction bestseller by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.
The film, starring Rob Lowe as the ill-fated president and Ginnifer Goodwin as the long-suffering first lady, hopscotches through the major events of Kennedy’s abbreviated term in the White House (Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis) in between scenes of his womanizing. More illuminating, at least to the average viewer, will be the film’s depiction of Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar), especially his alleged attempt to assassinate the far-right-wing zealot Gen. Edwin Walker and his tragically close brushes with the FBI.
In a decision that will surely draw jeers from certain corners of the Internet, “Killing Kennedy” hews closely to the Warren Commission’s official version of events. “This is not a conspiracy-theory story, it’s based on what’s known and what’s proven,” said Howard Owens, president of National Geographic Channels.
But the grassy knoll will also have its moment in the spotlight (as arguably it should, given that only 24 percent of Americans believe Oswald acted alone, according to an AP-GfK survey conducted in April). Reelz, the obscure cable network that made headlines in 2011 when it acquired the History castoff “The Kennedys,” has “JFK: The Smoking Gun,” a documentary (of sorts) airing Nov. 3 which posits that the fatal shot to Kennedy’s head was accidentally fired by Secret Service Agent George Hickey. (Appropriately, the network will also broadcast Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” the urtext of Warren Commission skepticism.)
Other specials, including CNN’s “The Sixties: The Assassination of President Kennedy” and “Fox News Reporting: 50 Years of Questions: The JFK Assassination,” will take a more measured look at the findings of the commission in 1964.
“Nova: Cold Case JFK,” airing Nov. 13 on PBS, uses cutting-edge forensic technology to address some of the more persistent pro-conspiracy arguments, like the contention that only a “magic bullet” could have passed through Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally and remained intact.
Those interested in Kennedy’s life and legacy, rather than the endlessly contested circumstances surrounding his death, are better served by “American Experience: JFK,” also on PBS. Drawing extensively on recent scholarship, particularly that of historian Robert Dallek, the four-hour documentary will air in two parts on Nov. 11 and 12. (It was expanded after a two-hour edit was deemed too cursory.)
The first half focuses on Kennedy’s life before the White House, charting his evolution from sickly scion to World War II hero to playboy senator, while the second chronicles his tumultuous 1,000 days in the White House. The film also delves into lesser-known aspects of the president’s biography, particularly his struggle with Addison’s disease and debilitating back problems.
What “American Experience: JFK” does not do, however, is brood over the events in Dealey Plaza, which are skipped entirely. “It was a very conscious decision,” executive producer Mark Samels said of the omission. “We purposely wanted to do an ellipsis around that.”
“JFK: The Final Hours,” also on National Geographic, takes the opposite tack, recounting in minute detail the president’s barnstorming trip across Texas and featuring interviews with many of the admiring well-wishers who greeted him (it’s narrated by Bill Paxton, who as an 8-year-old boy stood outside Kennedy’s Fort Worth hotel). It is loaded with surprisingly poignant trivia, like that Kennedy spent the last night of his life in a room decorated with a Van Gogh.
“The Day Kennedy Died,” airing on Smithsonian Channel Nov. 17 and narrated by Kevin Spacey, follows a similar timeline, though it focuses on eyewitnesses to the crime and its aftermath. “To hear from people who had their eyes to the keyhole, not journalists one step back, not experts, not politicians but people who were primary witnesses, I think you get a special vitality from that,” said director Leslie Woodhead.
The film consists almost entirely of archival footage and contemporary interviews with ordinary people who will forever be tied to one of the most notorious days in American history. We hear from Clint Hill, the heroic Secret Service agent who leapt onto the presidential limousine after the first shots were fired, and Buell Frazier, the 19-year-old co-worker who gave Oswald a ride to the Texas School Book Depository that fateful morning, among others.
“I think what I understood more deeply than I had done seeing it from afar was just how it changed individual lives,” said Woodhead, “how it really got inside people.”
Bob Schieffer thinks the volume of coverage is entirely appropriate. “Television has a way of overdoing things, but in this case I don’t think we are. It’s impossible to overstate how traumatic this was for the country,” he said.
Schieffer will host CBS’ prime-time special, “As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years,” planned for Nov. 16, and will anchor “Face the Nation” live from the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, formerly the Texas School Book Depository, the following day.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for the veteran newsman, who was a young police reporter working the night shift at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in November 1963. Schieffer’s brother woke him up on the afternoon of the 22nd with the urgent news that the president had been shot; he rushed to the office and later that day gave Oswald’s mother, who had phoned the paper, a ride to the police station in Dallas. Like many journalists of his generation, the assassination would change the course of his career.
“The country has never been quite the same as it was before the assassination,” said Schieffer, likening Kennedy’s arrival at the White House to the moment “Wizard of Oz” switches from black-and-white to color. “He was our first Technicolor president.”