The First Olympics on Television (it wasn’t in the U.S.)

Another Olympiad is upon us — this time from Tokyo, after a year’s delay due to the Covid pandemic. It could very well be the most bizarre Olympic Games yet, as athletes from all over the world will partake in opening and closing ceremonies, and compete for medals and world records in front of empty stadiums, swimming halls, and other venues. Expect to see no crowds, no cheering, just mostly empty seats and virtual silence (except for VIPs, coaches, staff, and a throng of journalists). Yet, it will all be televised, of course.

Reaching back in time to recall another bizarre, bone-chilling, but very different set of circumstances, the infamous 1936 Games opened on August 1 of that summer, under the menacing auspices of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. With the exception of the English Derby at Epsom race track in England in 1932 (televised by television inventor John Logie Baird), the Berlin Olympiad was the first sporting event ever to be televised to a viewing TV audience.

Depiction of the earliest German TV transmissions.

In the early 1930s, engineers in both Germany and Great Britain kept vigilant of each other’s progress in their quest to be the first to present television to the masses. In Germany, with the Nazi party’s power already omnipotent, all early television experiments were conducted under the party’s auspices. Electronic cameras had been in use there since March 22, 1935, the official birth date of German TV. Even so, the picture quality was poor, due mostly to the rush to beat the U.K. and U.S. development of their own systems. Those first regular German TV broadcasts consisted largely of Nazi propaganda programs, and, while they were on the air three times a week, the equipment at first permitted only head and shoulder shots of those seated in a closet-like scanning cell. The shows were all televised live, broadcast from the Paul Nipkow Television Station, a small studio in Berlin.

The disappointing picture quality prompted the Nazis to assign a television troupe to produce television content shot first on 35 mm film. The prominent program at this early stage was a propaganda series called Strength Through Joy. Another program, Roof Garden, was the first German entertainment show, consisting of musical acts and, of course, more Nazi propaganda. It had its broadcast premiere on June 19, 1935.

Berlin theatre used as a TV viewing parlor.

At the time the Olympics opened, on August 1, 1936, there were still precious few privately-owned TV sets in Germany to receive the broadcasts from the Olympic Stadium. Instead of broadcasting only to those handful of households with televisions (mostly belonging to high-ranking Nazi party members), public TV viewing parlors were installed throughout Berlin; some allowed about 20 people at a time to sit in a darkened room and watch the events on one or two small-screen monitors in the front. Other venues were set up in existing theatres to accomodate larger crowds. Roughly 160,000 viewers visited these parlors to watch portions of the Olympic events.

At the stadium, three electronic cameras were used in conjunction with film cameras, creating an “intermediate film” method, which sent exposed film from the cameras into the broadcasting truck to be instantly developed, and then transmitted a minute later to the TV parlors. Picture quality still wasn’t ideal, but it was a milestone accomplishment in the early history of television broadcasting.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics were the first ever to be televised — albeit only in Germany — while the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled due to World War II. Subsequent Games after the war (London, ’48; Helsinki, ’52; Melbourne, ’56) were seen on American TV only as newsreels and as limited highlights on news broadcasts.

Camera crew at the Squaw Valley games.

Other firsts in televising the Olympics: It wasn’t until 1960 when American viewers saw CBS televise same-day (but not live) reports from the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. Originally, ABC paid $50,000 for the rights to cover the games, but later backed out. Roone Arledge, one-time president of ABC Sports and ABC News, explained, “CBS had picked up the Games, not out of any love for the Olympics but as a favor from [CBS president] Bill Paley to Walt Disney.” What did Walt Disney have to do with it? He was chairman of the Pageantry Committee, responsible for the opening and closing ceremonies, and Paley was happy to ensure that his friend’s efforts would be televised coast-to-coast.

Walter Cronkite reports from Squaw Valley.

The reporters covering these games included Walter Cronkite (still two years away from assuming his role as anchor of the evening news), Bud Palmer, and future ABC stalwart Chris Schenkel. But the CBS coverage was nothing like what American viewers today are accustomed to seeing for each winter and summer Olympics. The Squaw Valley broadcasts were initially limited to 15-minute recap segments each evening, beginning at 11:15 p.m. This obviously precluded the opportunity for any younger viewers to see the highlights, and also didn’t allow for in-depth reporting on the individual events or the participating athletes. However, CBS did expand its coverage later in the week to include figure skating, hockey, and ski jumping, prompting New York Times TV critic Jack Gould to retract somewhat his earlier criticisms of the coverage. “These events were part of the original CBS plans for the Olympic coverage, not an afterthought,” he conceded in a follow-up column, “so that viewers who legitimately complained about those earlier 15-minute summaries, including this corner, were perhaps too quick in their judgments.”

Later in 1960, CBS also offered limited coverage of the Summer Olympics in Rome. This was still before satellites enabled live broadcasts from abroad, so films of the Games had to be flown to New York for broadcast.

By the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, NBC used the Syncom 3 satellite for its coverage, including live, color broadcasts of the opening and closing ceremonies. These were the first color transmissions via satellite from overseas to the U.S. (but only the ceremonies themselves were shown in color).

So today, as the Tokyo Olympics are about to begin with the skeptical eyes of the world upon them, and the Covid virus running rampant, we might take a moment to recall the grotesque proceedings of those swastika-laden Berlin Olympics 85 years ago. In the midst of propaganda and white-washed images in Germany’s national press of life under Hitler as he appeared on television, the Berlin Olympics will no doubt be remembered for those disturbing images, but also for a few that instilled both defiance and pride for much of the free world at the time: the success of 4-time gold medalist Jesse Owens.

Until next time…

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Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.