Christine Chubbuck[a] (August 24, 1944 – July 15, 1974) was an American television news reporter who worked for WTOG and WXLT-TV in Florida. She is known for being the first person to commit suicide on a live television broadcast.
|Born||August 24, 1944|
Hudson, Ohio, U.S.
|Died||July 15, 1974 (aged 29)|
Sarasota, Florida, U.S.
|Cause of death||Self-inflicted gunshot wound|
|Occupation||Television news reporter|
|Television||WVIZ, WTOG, WXLT-TV|
Chubbuck was born in Hudson, Ohio, the daughter of Margaretha D. "Peg" (1921–1994) and George Fairbanks Chubbuck (1918–2015). She had two brothers, Greg and Tim. Chubbuck attended the Laurel School for Girls in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. During her years at Laurel, she started a small tongue-in-cheek group called the "Dateless Wonders Knitting Club." She attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, for one year, majoring in theater arts, then attended Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, before earning a degree in broadcasting at Boston University in 1965.
She worked for WVIZ in Cleveland for a year in 1966/1967, and attended a summer workshop in radio and television at New York University in 1967. Also in 1967, Chubbuck worked in Canton, Ohio and for three months at WQED-TV in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as an assistant producer for two local shows, "Women's World" and "Keys to the City" before leaving, in 1968, to spend four years as a hospital computer operator and two years with a cable television firm in Sarasota, Florida. Immediately before joining ABC affiliate WXLT-TV (now WWSB), she worked in the traffic department of WTOG in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Several years before dying, Chubbuck had moved into her family's summer cottage on Siesta Key, Florida. The Washington Post later reported that she had painted the bedroom and canopied bed to look like that of a young teenager. After the divorce of their parents, her mother Peg and younger brother Greg came to live in the Florida home. When Greg left, her elder brother Timothy moved in. She had a close relationship with her family, describing her mother and Greg as her closest friends.
WXLT-TV's owner, Bob Nelson, had initially hired Chubbuck as a reporter but later gave her a community affairs talk show, Suncoast Digest, which ran at 9:00 am. Production Manager Gordon J. Acker described Chubbuck's new show to a local paper: "It will feature local people and local activities. It will give attention, for instance, to the storefront organizations that are concerned with alcoholics, drug users, and other 'lost' segments of the community." Page five of the article showed a smiling Chubbuck posed with an ABC camera.
Chubbuck took her position seriously, inviting local Sarasota–Bradenton officials to discuss matters of interest to the growing beach community. After her death, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that Chubbuck had been nominated for a Forestry and Conservation Recognition Award by the Bradenton district office of the Florida Division of Forestry. She was considered a "strong contender" by district forester Mike Keel, who had been originally scheduled to appear as a guest on Chubbuck's show the morning of her suicide; he had cancelled out because of the birth of his son.
Chubbuck spoke to her family at length about her struggles with depression and suicidal tendencies, though she did not inform them of her specific intent beforehand. She had attempted to overdose on drugs in 1970 and frequently made reference to that event. She had also been seeing a psychiatrist up until several weeks before her death. Chubbuck's mother chose not to tell station management of her daughter's suicidal tendencies, because she feared Chubbuck would be fired as a result.
Her focus on her lack of intimate relationships is generally considered to be the driving force for her depression; her mother later summarized "her suicide was simply because her personal life was not enough." She lamented to co-workers that her 30th birthday was approaching and she was still a virgin who had never been on more than two dates with a man. Her brother Greg later recalled several times she had gone out with a man before moving to Sarasota, but agreed she had trouble connecting socially in the beach resort town. He believed her constant self-deprecation for being "dateless" contributed to her ongoing depression. In a later interview, Greg stated that Christine had been in two serious relationships: the first had been when she was a teenager and was with a man in his 20s who had subsequently died in a car accident, and the second had been as an adult, but she had broken it off under pressure from her father because the boyfriend was Jewish.
She had her right ovary removed in an operation the year before, and had been told that if she did not become pregnant within two to three years, it was unlikely she would ever be able to conceive.
According to a 1974 Sally Quinn article in the Washington Post, Chubbuck had an unrequited crush on co-worker George Peter Ryan. She baked him a cake for his birthday and sought his romantic attention, only to find out he was already involved with sports reporter Andrea Kirby. Kirby had been the co-worker closest to Chubbuck, but she was offered a new job in Baltimore, which had further depressed Chubbuck.
Chubbuck's lack of a romantic partner was considered a tangent of her desperate need to have close friends, though co-workers said she tended to be brusque and defensive whenever they made friendly gestures toward her. She was self-deprecating, criticizing herself constantly and rejecting any compliments others paid her. Years later, her brother Greg recalled that she displayed many symptoms of bipolar disorder, which was not generally recognized in the psychiatric community at the time of her death.
A week before her suicide, she told Rob Smith, the night news editor, that she had bought a gun and joked about killing herself on air. Smith later stated that he did not respond to what he thought was Chubbuck's "sick" attempt at humor, and changed the subject.
On the morning of July 15, 1974, Chubbuck confused co-workers by claiming she had to read a newscast to open Suncoast Digest, something she had never done before. That morning's talk show guest waited across the studio while Chubbuck sat at the news anchor's desk. During the first eight minutes of her program, Chubbuck covered three national news stories and then a shooting from the previous day at local restaurant Beef & Bottle, at the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. The film reel of the restaurant shooting had jammed and would not run, so Chubbuck shrugged it off and said on-camera, "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in 'blood and guts' and in living color, you are going to see another first—an attempted suicide." She drew the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver and shot herself behind her right ear. Chubbuck fell forward violently and the technical director faded the broadcast rapidly to black.
The station quickly ran a standard public service announcement and then a movie. Some television viewers called the police, while others called the station to inquire if the shooting was staged.
After the shooting, news director Mike Simmons found the papers from which Chubbuck had been reading her newscast contained a complete script of her program, including not only the shooting, but also a third-person account to be read by whichever staff member took over the broadcast after the incident. He said her script called for her condition to be listed as "critical."
Chubbuck was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead 14 hours later. Upon receiving the news, a WXLT staffer released the information to other stations using Chubbuck's script. For a time, WXLT aired reruns of the TV series Gentle Ben in place of Suncoast Digest.
Chubbuck's body was cremated. The funeral ceremony was held on the beach, where her ashes were scattered into the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 120 people attended, including local officials who had appeared on her show. Three songs by Chubbuck's favorite singer, Roberta Flack, were played. Presbyterian minister Thomas Beason delivered the eulogy, stating, "We suffer at our sense of loss, we are frightened by her rage, we are guilty in the face of her rejection, we are hurt by her choice of isolation and we are confused by her message."
Chubbuck's show, Suncoast Digest, stayed on the air for several years with new hosts. Simmons, the station director, said Chubbuck's suicide was unrelated to the station. "The crux of the situation was that she was a 29-year-old girl who wanted to be married and who wasn't," he said in 1977.
The footage of Chubbuck's death has not been seen since its initial airing, and numerous theories on what happened to the footage have been advanced. One was that the station owner Robert Nelson kept it, and it was in the possession of his widow, Mollie. It was confirmed in June 2016 that the footage of Chubbuck's death exists and had indeed been in Robert Nelson's possession, but was handed over to a "very large law firm" for safekeeping by Mollie Nelson. She has no plans on making it publicly available.
In 2007, Greg Chubbuck spoke publicly about his sister for the first time since 1974 in an E! Entertainment Television special. In 2016, Greg gave an interview to The Sun newspaper, stating that the tape had been locked away and that he had obtained an injunction to ensure that it would never be released.
In 2016, two films about Chubbuck played at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The first, Christine, was directed by Antonio Campos, and starred Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck and Michael C. Hall as George Peter Ryan. The second was the documentary Kate Plays Christine which depicts actress Kate Lyn Sheil's preparation for the part of Chubbuck.
For the American TV schedule, see: 1974–75 United States network television schedule.
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