Category: Historical Biography
Challenge: The event that invented reality television and proved that real-time television news broadcasting could work and could transfix the public.
Key Words: breaking-news event, live broadcast, spectacle, American history, tragedy
Created by: William Deverell
Link: Angel City Press
Description: In Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy that Transfixed the Nation historian William Deverell tells the story of the first live, breaking-news TV spectacle in American history. At dusk on a spring evening in 1949, a three-year-old girl fell down an abandoned well shaft near her family home in the quiet community of San Marino. Across more than two full days of a fevered rescue attempt, the fate of Kathy Fiscus remained unknown. Thousands of concerned Southern Californians rushed to the scene. Jockeys hurried over from the nearby racetracks, offering to be sent down the well after Kathy. 20th Century-Fox sent over the studio’s klieg lights to illuminate the scene. Rescue workers–ditch diggers, miners, cesspool laborers, World War II veterans–dug and bored holes deep into the aquifer below, hoping to tunnel across to the old well shaft that the little girl had somehow tumbled down.
The region, the nation, and the world watched and listened to every moment of the rescue attempt by way of radio, newsreel footage, and wire service reporting. They also watched live television. Because of the well’s proximity to the transmission towers on nearby Mount Wilson, the rescue attempt became the first breaking-news event to be broadcast live on television.