JFK Programming Runs the Gamut, But Is It Too Much? (Analysis)

Documentaries and specials on the 35th president's legacy run the gamut, but is this programming losing cultural relevance by focusing on the wrong things?
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John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy and television have always had a close relationship. It was TV, after all, that first gave Kennedy his real chance at the presidency. After that inaugural televised debate with Richard Nixon, Kennedy became a star. That event in 1960 changed the political and television landscape forever, and three years later, everything would change further when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that tragic event, one the public has certainly never had far from their minds. Even outside of the anniversary, the Kennedys and "Camelot" are a national obsession, fueling a constant search for "truth" by conspiracy theorists, as well as something close to idol worship from many Americans. Not just Americans though -- BBC's Radio Two is even devoting several hours of its drive-time programming to "re-create one of the most famous events of the 20th century" on the anniversary date. That idea of fame is key to the Kennedy legacy, and it also shows the strange combination of politics and celebrity that leads to things like, at this year's Primetime Emmy Awards, Carrie Underwood singing the Beatles to commemorate his death.

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Television executives are keenly aware of the medium's rise coinciding along with the rise of Camelot, but still, what more can be said after 50 years of saturation on the subject? It depends on your preference as a viewer. There is going to be (some of it has actually already started) wall-to-wall coverage, from broadcast networks to news channels to offerings from way up on the cable channel dial. The flavors differ: some documentaries explore JFK's presidency, others his personal and family life. A handful focus solely on the assassination, even fanning conspiracist flames by using forensic evidence to call the Warren Report into question. There will of course also be many live broadcasts, including some that probably hope to be featured in anniversary programming to come. Still other options include a focus on the Kennedy women, as well as a few TV movies. Many of these, across the board, are also reruns. 

Is this programming being put out like a dinner of leftovers, or is it filling a genuine viewing need? What the bulk of the content seems to suggest is that there is still a desire to explore what, for many Americans, is still a mystery -- or at least, a legacy unfinished. Whether a continued exploration of this legacy (the one that was, or the one that could have been) still continues to be relevant is one question. Part of that will also be whether younger viewers, who might lack a feeling of direct relevance or connection to the Kennedys, will tune in at all to this deluge of programming. And if so, which parts? Is the interest in the romance of Camelot, a presidential legacy, the assassination, or simply what could have been?

For now, depending on your focal interest in the story of JFK -- his life, his presidency and/or his death -- there is sure to be something that will suit in the coming days (exact times and dates can be found here):

Live Broadcasts

-- If you are looking for familiar faces in historically significant places, Good Morning America (ABC), the NBC Nightly News and Piers Morgan Live (CNN) will all be providing that on Nov. 22 with daylong coverage (but interestingly, Dan Rather will not be part of any of it for CBS).

-- The broadcast networks also have more in-depth pieces scheduled throughout the week with those who were actually there: Today (NBC) will have Matt Lauer interview photographer Mary Ann Moorman-Krahmer, who photographed the fateful motorcade; the CBS Evening News will feature Scott Pelley talking to Clint Hill, a former Secret Service agent who was in the motorcade; Nightline (ABC) will interview descendants of key participants of that day's events. Smithsonian's The Day Kennedy Died will also connect with eyewitnesses of the tragedy. 

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-- And as part of the live coverage, Lauer will be touring the Sixth Floor Museum (formerly the Texas School Book Depository), and Tom Brokaw will host a special NBC documentary, Where Were You: The Day JFK Died

Historical Documentaries

-- Those who prefer to focus on JFK's presidency should look towards PBS' American Experience: JFK, or Lester Holt's take on the subject on Today. For more specific political commentary, the Military Channel is re-running Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

-- On the flip side, there are a number of programs looking specifically at JFK's personal life and the Kennedy family dynasty. The Lost Kennedy Home Movies (H2) are just that. MSNBC is re-running their 2009 Chris Matthews special The Kennedy Brothers: A Hardball Documentary. HBO meanwhile is reaching deep into their archives for JFK: In His Own Words, an encore of their 1998 documentary. 

-- For a consideration of life in America since the assassination, there is JFK: The Definitive Guide (History), about Americans' views towards the government since his presidency, as well as the more general 50 Years of Guns (MSNBC), hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton


-- The options in this category are sundry. There will be a staid take by Tom Brokaw on Today, as well as (another) Chris Matthews special from the 40th anniversary, JFK: The Day That Changed America (MSNBC). A CNN documentary series produced by Tom Hanks kicks off its 10 hours with The Assassination of President Kennedy, while National Geographic focuses on the time leading up to his death in the trivia-filled JFK: The Final Hours, narrated by Bill Paxton.

-- Other programs plan to focus on tangential figures: PBS is pulling out a 1993 Frontline special, Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?, while History zeroes in on the minutes before Lee Harvey Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby in Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live. And H2 will also be re-running its 2009 special The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After, which focuses on Lyndon B. Johnson's rise to power.

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-- If the (possible) mystery of the assassination is more of a driving force, there's a bevy of new (i.e. not re-running) hours of programming focusing on this all over the dial. Good Morning America will preview Discovery's JFK: The Lost Tapes, which features newly released audio recordings. Nova: Cold Case JFK (PBS) will feature the use of cutting-edge forensic technology to address pro-conspiracy arguments, some of which might well appear on Fox News Reports: 50 Years of Questions: The JFK Assassination and JFK: The Smoking Gun (Reelz), the latter of which also uses modern tech and eye witness accounts to help unravel the crime.

Fictionalized Accounts and Kennedy Women

-- For a different perspective on the Kennedys, Diane Sawyer will host a special report on World News (ABC) on Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Caroline Kennedy, while TLC has enlisted over 20 celebrities to present a few of the 800,000 letters sent to the First Lady after the assassination in Letters to Jackie

 -- Reruns of Killing Kennedy (NatGeo -- starring Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin) based on the book by Bill O'Reilly, as well as The Kennedys miniseries (Reelz -- starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes) will also be finding their way back to TV in the coming days and weeks.

Television programming has surely devoted more time to studying JFK in retrospect than with any other president. But the number of reruns this year about his presidency and the Kennedy clan suggest that the continued and even growing interest is really in that which deals with conspiracy claims about his death.

Then again, perhaps what viewers cling to about JFK's death specifically is more about his life -- cut short, signifying a loss of hope and potential of what could have been for this country.  An important reminder for those who want to just look back about that though is that the burden of change, as JFK himself said, falls squarely on us. "In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course."