What’s a 50th anniversary without witnesses to the original event, without the stirring personal narratives to remind us that, yes, that really happened? Such was the situation at the approach of Feb. 9, 2014, when reporters everywhere sought personal memories from those who watched the Beatles’ live debut 50 years earlier on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Here in Alabama, tributes and retrospectives were everywhere, with al.com’s digital news running an “Alabama Perspective” of the Beatles’ influence on musicians across the state. But what about Alabama’s largest city? Strangely absent from al.com’s or any news feature were witnesses from Birmingham. Wasn’t there anyone in Birmingham on that day in 1964 who can remember the TV moment when Ed Sullivan gestured to the band’s wildly anticipated performance and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles?”
The answer, if history tells us anything, is no.
“Unless they had a house with a very tall antenna. I mean incredibly tall,” those people don’t exist, said broadcaster and historian Russell Wells. Wells, a Birmingham native and public radio operations manager now working in Louisville, said the nearest CBS affiliates to Birmingham were broadcasting in UHF from Huntsville and Montgomery. To pull a VHF signal from neighboring states, he said, “would have been the stuff of Ripley.
In fact, idiosyncracies of the Magic City’s TV business from 1961-1966 were to blame for creating a virtual black hole for the nation’s dominant network, CBS, the home of The Ed Sullivan Show. Which is why, if friends claim to have actually witnessed the Fab Four’s performance from their Birmingham living rooms, you can say–
Oh No You Didn’t!
On Top of Red Mountain–
Contrary to what may be imagined, the situation had nothing to do with “teeming anti-Beatle sentiment” in Birmingham, or a reaction against CBS’s 1961 Freedom Riders documentary, Who Speaks for Birmingham?
The real reason, said Wells, is that Birmingham entered the 1960s with only two local TV stations–WBRC-6 and WAPI-13—which had to juggle programming from all three national networks. In 1961, Channel 6 took the unusual step of aligning itself with the weakest network of the three, ABC, and dropping all but a few CBS daytime soap operas. This left Channel 13 with a dual affiliation to both NBC and CBS, a position the station held even after the December 1965 entrée of Channel 42. (To his knowledge, Wells knows of only one other instance where one station had first pick of both the “Peacock and the Eye,” in Raleigh/Durham North Carolina.)
Only in 1970 did Channel 13 choose to affiliate exclusively with NBC, apparently moved by fears of FCC involvement. “Therefore, between September 1961 and December 1965, it was a sad inevitability that a number of network programs would not be seen in Birmingham,” Wells said. And falling into that category was the Sullivan show.
A glance at Birmingham’s TV listings for that date, published in the “The Tuscaloosa News” bears that out. Kids i Birmingham households with no high antenna were watching either the second half of Disney’s Wonderful World of Color at 7 p.m. or the one-season sitcom Grindle, starring Imogene Coca.
Or maybe doing homework.
If there were teenager complaints in the lead-up or aftermath of that first show (The Beatles were signed for three consecutive Sundays in February) there’s no recorded history of it. In retrospect, that’s hard to believe. But Wells said adults at the time weren’t concerned with teen fads and the phenomenon barely registered on the radars of those making decisions, at home or on Red Mountain.
It is also speculation that provides a reason why Birmingham’s top local station, Channel 13, decided against affiliating with the nation’s dominant network. In an aside relevant to Birmingham today, Wells said that station owners Newhouse Broadcasting (now Advance Media, owners of the Birmingham News, sister papers and al.com) were said to have “loathed CBS chairman and founder William Paley. So NBC it was,” he said.
And the fate of Ed Sullivan in Birmingham? The popular variety show returned to the Birmingham airways in 1966 after Channel 42 signed on. However, the station barely got signal as far as Warrior, Wells jokes, and its arrival came four months too late to air the Beatles’ final (taped) performance on Ed Sullivan in September 1965.
Wells said a curious legacy of the 1960s lasted into the 1990s when Channel 13 slipped in a syndicated show at 10 p.m. and delayed The Tonight Show one hour– a juggling trick it learned from its dual-affiliation days. The benefit? The station got to keep 100% of the commercial revenue!
Russell Wells is the creator and webmaster of birminghamrewound.com with collaborator Tim Hollis. Active in broadcasting since the 11th grade, in 1982, he has worked for the last 24 years at public radio stations in Montgomery, Troy, Savannah, and now Louisville. He frequently returns to Birmingham to visit an aunt living in East Birmingham.