Gathering at the TV for a Communal Experience : When Lincoln was assassinated, it took nearly a week to get the word out. Now 95 million of us simultaneously witness a fallen sports hero lead the police on a freeway chase.

<i> Paul Clarke of Northridge is a corporate consultant</i>

Where were you when President Kennedy was killed? Everyone who is old enough to know what was happening on Nov. 22, 1963, knows exactly what they were doing and where they were. I was in my dorm at military school between lunch and my next period. Another resident ran through the hall yelling for everyone to turn on their radio. Kennedy had been shot! For the next three days the world literally stopped to watch and listen.

We are the first generation in history to have globally communal experiences. Radio to some extent, television to a much greater degree, are the reason why.

We have now gone a whole week without the O.J. Simpson case taking up daytime television. Many of my friends are going through withdrawal. This mass witnessing of events is a phenomenon without historical precedent.


When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, it took nearly a week to get the word out to the frontier. Now 95 million of us simultaneously witness a fallen sports hero lead the police on a chase through Southern California.

People throughout the Valley planned their days around the television coverage. Stores were deserted when the hearing was on. They and the streets to get to them were busy during the lunch break. Phone calls were postponed until recesses.

Earthquake reconstruction chased my grandchildren from their home to mine. I suffered through their wails when all they found on television was the Simpson preliminary hearing.

I wonder what memory they will have of it half a century from now. I wonder what other pieces of history they will share with millions of others in their living room. As I look back on the experiences I have shared with millions of others, I realize that before instant mass communication, this sharing never took place.

Television entered my home when I was 3 years old. The deliverymen brought the carton into the apartment upside down. The picture didn’t work. I thought it was a radio with a funny looking speaker. But as soon as I saw my first cartoons on the 10-inch screen, I knew this box was going to get a lot of my attention.

In those days, nearly half a century ago in Washington, D.C., most of the stations were on for only part of the day and then back on again for Uncle Miltie in the evening.


I was part of a mass, shared experience at a young age. I remember vividly that many of my favorite shows were cut off by some old guy named Kefauver who had taken over my television. He had “guests” on his show who taught me, at age 5, to respond to my parents with, “I refuse to answer on the grounds it may tend to incriminate me.”


Sen. Estes Kefauver’s organized-crime hearings fascinated the country for weeks on end in 1951. There were only 5 million sets and only 100 stations nationwide. Yet 150 million people did their best to find a television to watch. In those days people stood on the street in front of the appliance store to watch the TV in the window.

Every night John Cameron Swayze showed day-old pictures of battles in a place called Korea, and every Friday he gave away gift cartons of Camel cigarettes to soldiers in veterans hospitals.

In 1952 I got up early to share Queen Elizabeth’s coronation with the world. In 1954 my shows were interrupted again by a blustery guy named McCarthy yelling “point of order” to various people in the same room Kefauver had used three years before. Twenty million television sets were in homes and all the channels covered the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Twenty-five years ago this week most of the nation stayed up all night to watch our astronauts land on the moon. Hardly anyone showed up for work the next day. Nearly all the 78 million U.S. televisions were on that night.

In 1973 I was “between jobs” when Sen. Howard Baker filled my days asking the likes of John Dean, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”


In 1987 I was building a business back up after six years in Washington working for Congress when Oliver North’s attorney told a joint intelligence committee that he was not a “potted plant.” I shared the Iran-Contra hearings and Oliver North’s riveting testimony with a good portion of the country.

These past few weeks most of the nation’s 93 million television sets were being watched by as many of our 250 million countrymen who could sneak away from work or hide from their boss. It wasn’t hard. The boss was probably watching too.


My generation is the first that has been able to see and hear history as it’s being made. Fifty years from now, how will the history books differ from today’s because so many people shared the experience? Will my grandchildren be more attuned to the events of the world because they have seen them happen?

Recent voting trends suggest the answer is no. The more we learn about the world around us, the less we seem to want to participate in it. Perhaps half a century from now my grandchildren won’t have to leave their television sets to vote or voice their opinion.

Already in the television age people witnessing events live run home to turn on their sets to see if what they saw really happened. Virtual reality may someday, unfortunately, be the only reality we know.