TV and the Convention
Live television coverage of national party conventions has been a feature of US presidential campaigns since 1948.
But the broadcast tradition seems to be running out of steam as fewer and fewer people each year are watching political conventions and the networks devote fewer hours to convention coverage.
While the political conversation heats up online, twitter may just beat TV.
Conventions can serve as interesting markers about the changing technologies.
Whether it was the 1844 convention where news was sent by telegraph for the first time or the 1880s when reporters had access to new fangled objects like the telephone and typewriters, communication changes the very nature of the campaigns.
When a young Time Magazine covered its first political convention back in 1924, one of the main topics of conversation then as now was the impact of a new communications medium on the conduct of political campaigns.
1924 is best remembered as the year radio broadcasting first came to the conventions. It caused quite a stir since radio broadcasting was still a relatively new field.
Until the advent of radio the conventions truly were an individual party event. The wider public had no firsthand knowledge of what went on in the convention hall.
Radio broadcasters even offered suggestion to the campaign managers to tailor to the new medium: “They will not attempt to put on the air long-winded political speeches…the ordinary political speech…will not go at all with radio audiences. They will tune out in the middle of it and get some station that is sending jazz or a symphony concert.”
Americans, it seems have long had a short attention span.
At the time there were 2 separate radio networks organized by AT&T and RCA.
Hear, Cheer and Listen In
RCA was also the manufacturers of radios and naturally in one of their print ads they excitedly touted the convention coverage, also promoting their new Radiola radios:
“Cheer with the galleries when the delegates march in!”
“No ‘influence’ needed this year for a gallery seat at the big political conventions. Get it all with Radiola Super Heterodyne.”
“When the delegates march in- their banners screaming; when the bands play and the galleries cheer- be there with a “Super Het”.
“Hear the pros and cons as they fight their way to a platform for you. Hear the speeches of the favorite sons! The sudden stillness when the voice of a great speaker rings out. The stamps and whistles and shrill of competitive cheering.”
“Hear the actual nomination of a president.”
“It used to be all for the delegates wives and the “big folks” of politics. Now it’s for everybody. “
“Listen in. Get it All! With the newest Radiola.”
The major broadcast networks we think of today began after the 1924 convention. By 1928 when the Hoover/ Smith presidential contest took place the major parties had accepted radio as a major campaign tool where it would continue to be the main source of information.
The Dawning Of TV
By 1948 a new era in technology had begun.
In June 1948 the television networks broadcast their first live reports from a presidential convention when they covered the Republican convention in Philadelphia which hosted both Democrats and Republicans that summer.
At the time only 18 cities in the US had television stations and only 9 of those were on the coaxial cable that carried the signal from the convention in Philadelphia.
But the fact was, only a couple hundred thousand Americans actually owned TV sets.
Nonetheless, companies like General Electric jumped on the bandwagon advertising its GE Daylight Television “See them…nominate the next president of the united states. For the first time in history you can actually see the roll calls that will rock the nation. Follow the excitement of both conventions with GEDaylight Television.”
Hoping to replicate Radios success , ads for NBC network were as upbeat as the ad for the RCA radio in touting the advantages of the new technology of television.
Teaming up with Life magazine for the hoopla, they boasted:
“Life-NBC television of the democratic convention would be like a free trip there with press passes.!” They promised a breathless readership.
“No longer was the convention the domain of a fortunate few.”
Picturing a well scrubbed delegate and his charming wife the ad compared the cost of attending the convention to the stay at home viewer who could get the same experience if not better right in the comfort of their own home.
“With about $335 or more,” the ad began, “2 press passes and reservations made long ago in advance, a NY couple living on an average delegates scale could do a good job of seeing the Democratic convention in person ( assuming the convention lasts 5 days and factoring in a Pullman ticket)
But in the comfort of their own Barca Lounger, those lucky Americans who actually owned a television set would have it made.
A Political Staycation
“At home millions of Americans will see the same great show for nothing just as they did the Republican convention- on Life-NBC television. In many ways they will see it better. They will actually see some things before delegates themselves do!”
“Who’ll climb into the ring with the republican nominee?”
“Will President Truman be re-nominated- or will his party bolt and name a dark horse candidate?
“Yes, anything can happen. And Life and NBC have teamed up[ to give millions an eye witness view to lift them out of their seats…..”
“Floor coverage from many vantage points that will show them the “big break” in the race for the nomination before most of the delegates themselves see it….”
Included in the telecast will be world famous personalities…news analysis…political big wigs…the man on the street…delegates at work and at play..all the shouting color and excitement of the biggest political show on earth.
“If you live in or near any of the cities below and have access to a television set, don’t miss this exciting and historic joint venture in journalism. “
TV Grows Up
1952 marked the first time that a significant portion of the electorate watched the convention on television. Watching the convention became a genuine “shared political experience”
Again TV Companies focused on the conventions in their advertising for television sets. “Buy a television and watch the conventions” they promised.
“With the aid of television,” blared one ad for RCA “we had what amounted to the biggest town meeting ever held….60 million people had front row seats and got a better picture of what was going on than any delegates or any reporter on the convention floor.”
The presence of television cameras and the knowledge that a large audience was watching began in earnest in 1952 to change the dynamics of the convention itself.
The television coverage put a a great new strain on campaigners.
They were not allowed to look tired. They now had to produce more ideas; the political speech which once upon a time was good for 100 whistle stops across the country is now used up in one TV appearance.
Both parties chose Chicago in part to make sure that all sections of the viewing public would watch evening events near to prime time viewing hours
By 1952 the conventions were designed for the visual medium of television becoming clear that the future of campaigning and presidential conventions would lay inside TV’s.
This was TVs convention.