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Friday, November 14, 2014

The Christine Chubbuck Story

From the looks of Christine Chubbuck, you'd think she had everything. She was a successful female TV news reporter at a time when women in broadcast news reporting were still fairly rare. She was young (29), attractive, talented, smart and ambitious. She had all the qualities needed to make it in broadcast media.

But there was a dark side to her. A side few people saw and most ignored.

Christine Chubbuck grew up in an upscale suburb of Cleveland. She was often described as very moody. She could be very nice one day, the next - look out! "She had no greys in her life" Greg Chubbuck, Christine's brother said about her. "Everything was black and white. Things were either wonderful or terrible. Chrissy just didn't have a compromise button"

Today, we call that bipolar disorder. But in the 1960s and '70s with mental health education and treatment still in the dark ages, nobody had a name for it. It was looked at as a character flaw on the person itself rather than a condition that could be treated. But her alarming and visceral mood swings were enough for her family to seek help from psychologists.

Christine attended an all-girls high school (where she formed a tongue-in-cheek group called "The Dateless Wonder Club"), and went on to Miami University in Oxford, OH to study theatrical art. Then to Boston University where she earned a degree in broadcasting in 1965.

She worked for several public TV stations before coming to Sarasota, FL and joining WXLT-TV Ch. 40.

Initially hired as a reporter, Christine moved up to host a daily morning community affairs program called Suncoast Digest. The program was ahead of it's time in the fact it addressed segments of the local community typically ignored by most media, such as alcoholics and drug users in a manner that wasn't in a negative or condescending light. That there was hope for these individuals and showcased the groups and agencies trying to help them.

Christine took her position seriously and began making a name for herself. But she was still unhappy with her life. She struggled with her depression and attempted suicide in 1970.

She rarely dated anyone and yearned for a relationship. Christine even lamented to co-workers in 1974 that she was approaching her 30th birthday and she was still a virgin. Compounding that was she had an ovary removed the year before and doctors told her if she did not conceive in the next few years, she probably never would.

But Christine could never accept compliments and even got defensive over receiving them. She was constantly self deprecating herself. Her lack of self-esteem made it hard for her to socialize, even in a beach resort town like Sarasota.

She had a crush on a fellow reporter at WXLT and baked him a cake on his birthday. But discovered he was already in a relationship with someone else at the station, whom she was close friends with. Her friend had also recently recently been hired by a station in Baltimore, a much larger market than Sarasota. Christine had been hoping a station in nearby Tampa would notice her and give her the break she was looking for professionally. But nothing materialized.

She also resented the push in broadcast TV towards crime oriented news stories. The infamous "If it bleeds, it leads" policy in local TV news was quickly becoming established across America in the mid-1970s.

Ratings research indicated that with news stories about homicide and violent crime being shown first on a local TV news program, it tended to keep viewers watching for the remainder of the program and also increased viewership of local TV commercials during the newscast. Which encouraged current advertisers to continue sponsoring the newscast and attracted new ones, increasing a station's profitability.    

Christine didn't like this trend, which she called "blood and guts TV". But she realized she couldn't change it.

She surprised her news director at WXLT by asking to do a news piece on suicide and he approved. Christine then went to the Sarasota County sheriff's office and asked a deputy about the most efficient ways one would commit suicide. The deputy made a suggestion; A .38 calibre revolver with wadcutter target bullets aimed at the back of the head.

The morning of July 15, 1974 began like any other at the station. But Christine had asked to open Suncoast Digest with a news report, something that surprised co-workers as she vocally resented doing news reporting in the current environment. But WXLT management allowed her to do this.

She opened with three national news stories, then a local news story. As an operator in master control cut away to a film clip of the local story, the film jammed and the camera operator cut back to Christine, who unfazed, said;

"In keeping with Channel 40's policy in bringing you the latest in 'blood and guts' and in living colour, you are going to see another first - attempted suicide"

Christine Chubbuck then pulled a .38 calibre revolver and shot herself in the back of the head, exactly per the deputy's recommended method.

The shocked technical operator in the master control room quickly faded to black and ran to the studio. The news director also rushed in, both thinking it was some sick prank until they saw Chubbuck's twitching body slumped over the news desk.

Horrified viewers began calling WXLT and the station quickly resumed operation, using a few public service announcement clips and a movie. The WXLT news director found the script of her program on the news desk, including a script written in third-person to be read by a staff member who took over the broadcast. The station briefly ran reruns of Gentle Ben in place of Chubbuck's show. The Chubbuck family also sought and received the 2" Quad videotape of Chubbuck's final broadcast to prevent any further airings.

The tragic story of Christine Chubbuck's on air suicide shocked the nation for several weeks. And became the inspiration behind Paddy Chayefsky's script in the 1976 movie Network. Greg Chubbuck also spoke to E! Network about the suicide for the first time in 2007.

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