The United States experienced significant transition and change throughout the twentieth century, but a particular year—1968—proved one of the most dramatic and consequential to the nation. Fifty years later, we continue to feel its cultural impact. Considerations of why, however, too often undervalue the rise and influence of broadcast television.
In 1950, only nine percent of US households owned a television set. By 1968, the number exceeded 90 percent. Understanding the year, then, requires assessing the critical role of television. And, more specifically, television news. Millions of Americans experienced 1968’s turbulent sequence of global events via local and network news programming, and subsequent generations process the year through the archival remnants of broadcast history. Importantly, television archives remind us that 1968 encompassed more than assassinations and war, protests and politics. The year also saw the progenitor of March Madness, breakthroughs in space travel, and a whole lot of the mundane.
BROADCASTING 1968 considers a range of historic events and cultural trends through the lens of local television news. In the process, the web exhibit addresses key questions about both 1968 and today: How does broadcast journalism document notable occurrences? Do archival films offer a different view of an era and why? And perhaps most importantly, who decides what stories are told?
With an emphasis on news produced by Houston television stations KPRC and KHOU, BROADCASTING 1968 also uses so-called local news to complicate easy assumptions about city, state, nation, and world. How do national movements manifest locally, and local events achieve international significance? Houston—a diverse and populous center of industry, art, and government as well as a hub of the American space program—provides a worthy case study.
YEAR IN REVIEW
Television news reported every twist and turn of the 1968 presidential election, from President Lyndon Johnson’s surprise announcement to early morning calls of Richard Nixon as winner. Candidates shrewdly used the popular medium to their advantage. While pervasive campaign advertisements boosted exposure, televised reports of carefully orchestrated public appearances crafted the desired political image. Third-party candidate George Wallace deliberately provoked racial fears in stump speeches in order to attract a wider audience and “play in the press," according to aide Seymore Trammell. Meanwhile, Nixon's team allegedly timed his arrival at Miami International Airport to the exact minute that nightly news coverage of the Republican National Convention began. Television—and television news in particular—was now a major component of campaign strategy.
|KPRC-TV, August 9 -- Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota officially entered the presidential race as an anti-war candidate on January 3. The press largely doubted his ability to defeat a sitting president—no matter how unpopular—until the New Hampshire primary. President Johnson received just 49.4 percent of votes to McCarthy's 42.4 percent. Johnson announced his decision not to seek re-election 19 days later. This news segment captures moments from McCarthy's one-day visit to Houston on August 9. Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas introduces the candidate during a press conference at the Rice Hotel, offering his formal endorsement. He remained the only senator to do so.
|KPRC-TV, September 16-7 -- State political conventions begin with the Texas Democratic Convention at Austin’s Palmer Auditorium on September 16. Lieutenant Governor Preston Smith delivers the keynote address, while State Senator Barbara Jordan shares her disappointment in the lack of enthusiasm for nominee Hubert Humphrey. The following day, Republicans gather at the GOP Convention at Fort Worth’s Hotel Texas. Speakers include vice presidential nominee Spiro Agnew, Congressman George H. W. Bush, and gubernatorial nominee Paul Eggers. Wallace speaks at the American Independence Party convention at the Memorial Auditorium in Dallas the same day.
The Vietnam War altered the substance of television news, and television news moved public opinion of the Vietnam War. Historians offer CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite as a watershed moment for both. On February 27, CBS News aired a prime-time special entitled “Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?” Cronkite—a respected newsman and former Houstonian—had returned from his personal investigation of the Vietnam offensive and was prepared to pass judgment. “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” he told millions of television viewers. “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” As one of the most trusted voices in news, Cronkite’s departure from reporting official accounts to delivering his own grim pronouncement undeniably bore considerable impact. Disillusioned Americans found expression for their narrowing popular support, while other broadcasters gradually infused news coverage with personal commentary.
On-the-ground reporting, however, was not limited to network coverage. KPRC sent news cameras to Vietnam in December 1966, more than a year before Cronkite, and produced two television documentaries: A Christmas Card from Vietnam and The Vietnam Diary.
|KHOU-TV, February 18 -- News cameras capture the tearful reunion between Captain Jon Black and his family at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. Black was one of three US Air Force pilots released from North Vietnamese captivity two days prior. He spent four months as a prisoner of war after North Vietnamese forces shot down his plane on October 17, 1967. At the Black home in Laredo, Carolyn Black tells reporters about how she learned of her husband’s release and what she did while he was overseas. According to the US Department of Defense, 684 American POWs returned from the Vietnam War alive. Eighty died in captivity. Approximately 1,600 military personnel remain officially unaccounted for.
|KHOU-TV, March 6 -- On the evening of March 5, a shotgun blast ripped through the living room window of the Houston home of Mona and Ezra Schacht. This news footage captures the exterior and interior damage. Ezra Schacht then tells reporters that he believes the attack was perpetrated by anti-Semitic extremists. As outspoken anti-war communists, the Schachts were popular targets for harassment from hate groups. Prior to the shotgun incident, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on their front lawn. Less than a week before the shooting incident, the Schachts' eldest son, Daniel, was convicted for illegally wearing a military uniform during an anti-war demonstration. He was free on bond at the time of the incident.
As early as 1965, NBC correspondent Bill Monroe qualified television as the “chosen instrument” of the Civil Rights Movement. More than 50 years later, news footage documenting the era has remained in near-constant circulation on the nation’s screens. Whether in high-profile PBS documentaries, journalist roundtables, or devoted YouTube channels, evocative black-and-white archival film serves as a mediated memory of Selma, the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” and the March on Washington.
In her book Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement, Aniko Bodroghkozy identifies recurring tropes within civil rights television reporting: the well-meaning white moderate, the aberrant white segregationist, and the deserving Black subject. She concludes that such representational strategies validate the movement’s goals as well as mollify white audiences about the “worthiness of Southern Blacks” in their crusade for equality. Bodroghkozy focuses on national network programming, but local television news echoes and reflects much of her argument. Its chronicle of civil rights happenings publicizes demonstrations, minority initiatives, and community relations programs across Houston.
|KHOU-TV, August 15 -- Houston City Hall installs a satellite office in the Blossom Heights neighborhood to better address the community’s needs, including a lack of organized youth activities and housing segregation. Ernest Carswell, the city official in charge of the mobile unit, goes on to describe his desire to remove a barbed-wire fence separating the predominantly white neighborhood of Tanglewilde from the predominantly Black and brown neighborhood of Blossom Heights. The mobile unit was part of a public initiative called “Project Uplift,” designed to cut red tape and make residents of underprivileged communities aware of city services. The close proximity also revealed neglected areas in need of municipal attention and improvement.
|KHOU-TV, August 16 -- On August 15, about 25 of the roughly 50 Ben Taub General Hospital employees failed to report for their scheduled 3 pm to 11 pm shift. The next night, 34 employees were absent. During a press conference, State Representative Curtis Graves relays the group's request to meet with the Harris County Hospital District Board of Managers to discuss racial discrimination against people of color. People of color employed “at Ben Taub are generally given menial tasks,” he reportedly said. “We don’t believe that is right.” Graves served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1967 to 1973. Along with Barbara Jordan and Joe Lockridge, Graves was one of the first African Americans elected to the Texas Legislature since 1896.
The 1960s were a decade scarred by notable gun deaths. Years before the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the nation suffered two other Texas-set tragedies: the 1963 slaying of President John F. Kennedy and the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin. These shocking events prompted two conflicting public reactions—a distinct rise in gun sales and widening support for federal gun control legislation. President Johnson moved on the latter, leveraging the deaths of King and Kennedy into action from Congress. A political process he hoped to complete in days instead took months, slowed by opposition from Southern Democrats and pressure from the National Rifle Association. The resulting Gun Control Act of 1968 eliminated Johnson’s suggested provisions of gun registration and owner licensing, but introduced regulations prohibiting certain interstate firearms transfers.
In an arguable attempt to avoid picking sides on the polarizing topic, relevant coverage from Houston television stations primarily involves prominent individuals arguing for or against regulation. KPRC takes a more direct approach. The 1966 television news documentary, Guns Are for Killing, investigates the tragic consequences of easy access to firearms. According to KPRC’s Frank Dobbs, the production invited both national acclaim and anonymous attacks.
|KHOU-TV, June 17 -- By 1968, the rate of violent crime in the United States was 298.4 incidents per 100,000 people—an 85 percent increase from 1960. The ensuing social anxiety, coupled with racial fears following years of unrest, precipitated a distinct rise in firearm sales. The King and Kennedy assassinations, however, inspired the opposite reaction in some gun owners. In this news segment, an unidentified man surrenders a rifle, handgun, and ammunition to Houston law enforcement. In an interview with a reporter, he then compares the difficulty of legally relinquishing a gun to the relative ease of buying one.
|KPRC-TV, June 27 -- News Director Ray Miller asks former astronaut John Glenn about his support of proposed gun control legislation. Glenn served as chairman of the Emergency Committee on Gun Control, a gun control advocacy group. The interview came one day after the fatal shooting of a Houston police officer, which Miller references. According to the Associated Press, Roderick Isaacks fatally shot Officer Ben Gerhart during a traffic stop in northwest Houston. A police chase ensued, ending when Isaacks’ car crashed into another vehicle. Responding officers killed him in the subsequent gun battle.
Remembrances of 1968 largely focus on specific events and trends. But local television news demonstrates that, even during turbulent times, the lived experience of most Americans more often centered around day-to-day needs and desires. In 1968, as in 2023, major news stories exist alongside mundane local reports and special-interest pieces—and whatever this is.
|KPRC-TV, January 15 -- An unidentified woman tells a reporter about the lack of assistance she received in saving her cat, Batman, from a tall tree. Four days later, an employee with Superior Tree Service successfully retrieves the cat and facilitates a family reunion. In a follow-up segment broadcast on January 19, the man relates his account of the rescue. Batman had been stuck in the tree for approximately 15 days.
|KHOU-TV, September 15 -- Theater actors rehearse for an upcoming performance of "Bells Are Ringing" at the Miller Outdoor Theatre. The musical was the inaugural performance of Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). Founded in 1968 by Frank M. Young, TUTS began as a program of free summer shows at the new venue. The organization now also hosts touring musicals at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Throughout the 1960s, local television news transformed from a 15-minute, black-and-white broadcast involving a solitary anchorman seated behind a desk to a 30-minute, color broadcast featuring a team of correspondents providing live coverage and on-the-scene reporting. Despite recent declines in television news viewership across all three sectors—local, network, and cable—local news continues to draw the largest audience. According to a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center, local television news reaches 71 percent of American adults, compared to 65 percent for network and 38 percent for cable.
|Signing on the air on January 1, 1949, KPRC is the oldest television station in Houston and the second-oldest station in the state. This 1968 television documentary looks back at its long history. News Director Ray Miller narrates the program. The film first identifies moments that shaped television news coverage, from Hurricane Carla to the introduction of color film stock, before focusing on station operations and current programming.
|KHOU was the second television station to debut in the Houston market, signing on the air on March 23, 1953. In this 1968 special, News Director Dick John gives a tour of the station, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the on-air personalities and their contributions to programming. Channel 11 called the Allen Parkway studio home from 1960 to 2017, when floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey devastated the building.
Edited and reproduced in 2023 by Katharine Austin.
It features archival materials contributed to the award-winning Texas Film Round-Up program by KPRC-TV, Stephen Schaefer, and Larry Weidman.
The digital preservation of the KHOU-TV Collection was made possible by a grant to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and the Houston Public Library from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services.
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