Television for the Troops
The First TV Network Built in a War Zone - The American Forces Vietnam Network
By Richard Wirth | September 08, 2013
As America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan winds down, I think back to another long running war – Vietnam. It is well known Vietnam was the first war brought into people’s homes by television. But television proved useful going the opposite direction as well.
For the first time, for better or worse, network evening newscasts showed the war in progress in the world’s living rooms and in color. Television’s coverage of the war is even said to have contributed to ending it. When CBS Anchorman Walter Cronkite brought his story home from Vietnam and went on the air to say the Vietnam war was a stalemate in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was famously quoted saying “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
However, American television was also being delivered to Vietnam. For the first time troops in a war zone were provided their own television programming. Needless to say, the communications landscape in 1970 was much different than it is today. Besides what we now call ‘snail mail,’ the only way to stay up on what was going on back home was the military broadcast outlet – The American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS). In Vietnam this took form as the American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). Headquartered in what was then known as Saigon, it is where I spent a portion of my time in uniform.
American Forces Vietnam Network, AM-FM-TV Saigon Key Station (in center). Vietnam State Television THVN in lower right.
In 1942, early in World War II, the U.S. Government saw a need to provide a morale booster to personnel serving overseas as well as an efficient way to communicate with the troops and keep them informed of military activities (called Command Information). It became known as the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS). Los Angeles was selected as headquarters for the new service to take advantage of its proximity to talent and mass recording facilities.
Prior to Vietnam, the military had only dabbled in television. Radio remained the conduit until shortly after the Korean conflict, when in 1954, the Air Force began adding low power television facilities at remote bases to provide entertainment to personnel. Before long, the “T” for television was added and AFRS became AFRTS.
American forces became involved in Vietnam in 1962 and American Forces Radio quickly commenced operations. As a military population drawn from a generation weaned on television rapidly grew, the Pentagon saw value in deploying a television infrastructure.
First, three aircraft called the “Blue Eagles” arrived in Vietnam in 1965. They were Navy C121 Super Constellations outfitted as complete television and radio stations including a film chain and full size quadruplex video tape recorders (VTR’s). They even included a small studio!
Interior of Navy C121 Super Constellation "Blue Eagle" flying television and radio station. Courtesy John Poulton.
Engineers experimented with several different antenna configurations. One set was attached to the belly of the aircraft. Another stretched from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other wing via the tail. There were also three booms attached to the top of fuselage. But the most interesting antenna was the one that hung down from the belly of the aircraft. It would be let out by a winch after takeoff and then be drawn back before landing.
Navy Super Constellation. Note antennae on top and below fuselage. Barely seen is the antenna from wing tip to wing tip. Courtesy John Poulton.
In 1966, The Blue Eagles gave way to a permanent facility completed in Saigon that became the network’s headquarters and key station. The Saigon unit had facilities rivaling any American mid-market station of the era. RCA International Service Co. built the facility and, at the same time, also outfitted Vietnam’s first state television outlet, THVN, almost a mirror image of the AFVN facility. Both stations were in the VHF band. THVN transmitted on the old analog channel 9 and AFVN on channel 11.
Concurrently with Saigon, seven “up country” detachments working out of tactical production vans came on line. The vans were TV stations on wheels, much like a remote production truck on steroids. The units had to accommodate a working area for the staff, a studio, a transmitter and a collapsible antenna. All of them also operated on Channel 11.
All AFVN television outlets met U.S. broadcast specifications - 525 line, 30 frames per second, 60Hz power per an agreement with the Vietnamese government. In Saigon and at most of the detachments, the AM and FM radio counterparts were co-located in the facility.
Personnel from all the services as well as civilian government employees and contractors could view programs on any standard American television receiver. Programs included many of the most popular programs the American networks had to offer.
AFVN Saigon Master Control Area. Photo by author.
AFVN Saigon had a full sized studio, fully equipped control room, newsroom, video tape facilities, film editing, graphics department, film processor and engineering shop. It also operated one of the last kinescope recorders. Kinescopes were the filmed result of aiming a film camera at a video monitor. The kinescope machine allowed programs produced on tape in Saigon to be “re-recorded” on 16mm film and then “bicycled” from the Saigon facility to the various detachments. Bicycling is a term borrowed from American television syndication whereby films and tapes are shipped from one local station directly to another subscribing station in another market. In Vietnam, this took the form of a daily air courier.
3 RCA TK60 cameras (one partially hidden on the left) sit ready to broadcast the AFVN Saigon News in 1970. Photo by author.
Kinescopes were used heavily in Vietnam because videotape capabilities up country were sparse and some units were restricted to filmed programming. In addition, the Saigon key station had no video interconnection with the detachments. This was on purpose. Due to the remote mountaintops across some of Vietnam’s most rugged terrain, microwave repeaters would have been tempting targets for enemy sabotage.
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