Conventional political conventions now seem so 2016.
If night three of the Democratic virtual convention is any indication, traditional conventions should be a thing of the past. It was historic, intimate, and breathtaking.
In a traditional televised convention, we would have heard stories about brave and struggling Americans told in long-winded speeches. But seeing and hearing from them personally is visceral. This must be the new format.
There is no going back to those days of silly hats, endless speeches, and reporters running around the floor. It feels as woefully outdated as the proverbial smoke-filled rooms that were once the hallmark of a convention. It’s out of touch.
The Democrat’s virtual convention unlike any that came before should forever change how we view this process. But coverage of the national party conventions has always been adapting and changing to new technology. The coronavirus added an unexpected adaptation.
The last convention four years ago was itself a shift.
While I watched history being made in Philadelphia as Hillary Clinton triumphantly accepted her party’s nomination as the first female candidate for president, I of course watched it via MSNBC, on TV while downstairs my 18-year-old niece was watching the same history being made streaming via Periscope on her iPhone.
My 46-inch flat-screen TV seems so darn old-fashioned, as passe as broadcast television which even I no longer had the patience for.
As viewers ditched their TVs entirely and followed the conventions on smartphones and tablets, live streaming feeds on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, it was a safe assumption that this was the swan song for network television as the go-to-for convention coverage.
That swan song has arrived.
Actually watching the conventions on network television now seems as dated as viewing it on a vintage 10 inch Dumont mahogany TV set from 1948, the very year live televised coverage of national conventions became a feature of US presidential campaigns.
History was made in Philadelphia that year too.
In June 1948 the newbie television networks broadcast their first live reports from a presidential convention when they covered the Republican and Democratic conventions in Philadelphia which hosted both parties that summer.
It was the hottest summer politically and weather-wise and tech-savvy Americans could now watch the battle heating up in Philly’s Municipal Auditorium from their own living rooms.
Four networks carried the proceedings to 13 eastern seaboard states. The fact was, only a couple hundred thousand Americans actually owned TV sets, but owners invited friends and neighbors into their living rooms,
Nonetheless, companies like General Electric jumped on the bandwagon advertising it’s 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 GE Daylight Television.
It was exciting.
Americans watching television saw the demonstrations, the suspense and intrigue and plain silliness for the first time. “Many viewers indicated that they found the recurrent carnival spirit not in keeping with the dignity they felt should prevail in the business of selecting a presidential nominee,” wrote a New York Times columnist. He predicted that TV coverage would force politicians to “pare away bombast and high jinks associated up to now with [conventions].”
We can see well that worked out.
How we select our presidents, from the conventions to the political process have always reflected and adapted to changing technology.
With each new communications breakthrough came the hope of it having a healthy effect on politics by promising to bring the country much closer to the words and actions of its politicians.
Whether it was the 1844 convention where news was sent by telegraph for the first time or the 1880’s when reporters had access to new-fangled objects like the telephone and typewriters, new forms of communications change 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.
Radio sets were still expensive, costing between $50 to $150, and only about 10% of US households had a radio receiver.
Radio was such a new medium that broadcasters even offered suggestions 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.
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 Builds Democracy
Was a time when we voted Pa’s ticket ‘cause he did and his pa did. When most of us couldn’t get much closer to a candidate and his ideas than the soap box orator on the corner. When bonfires and torchlight parades were as exciting a part of election day as the candidates and the issues.
Politics was no place for ladies, and what little the women knew about it they gleaned from scraps of the men folks talk.
Radio has changed all that.
Every farm-every city living room-every corner radio store will be a gathering place for the people, listening in. They’ll bring the candidates and the issues right into the home-building America into a real democracy.
Hear, Cheer, and Listen In
At the time there were 2 separate radio networks organized by AT&T and RCA.
RCA was also the manufacturer of radios and naturally in their print ads they excitedly touted the convention coverage while 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. The conventions showcased the power of broadcast, launching America forever int the abyss of the soundbite politics.
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 and the conventions would take full advantage of television’s power.
Just as today ABC news teamed up with Facebook for 24 hour live political convention coverage and Twitter paired with CBSN for live streaming, in 1948 NBC teamed up with media giant Life magazine promising unparalleled access to the events.
A Political Revolution
The powerhouse media combo for the hoopla boasted of making the convention a true democratic experience, their full-page ads declared a history-making presentation.
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 the 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)
Besides which hotel rooms were hard to come by and half the visitors were forced to stay in college dorms or private homes.
By the time the democrats arrived, the city was hit with a brutal heatwave.
These were the very first truly televised conventions and the heat inside convention Hall was intensified by the use of huge television lights. While delegates sweated it out stifling in shirt sleeves in a non-air-conditioned hall cooled only by large fans 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 renominated 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.
This was TV’s convention.
“With the aid of television,” exclaimed 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.”
Capturing the Circus
The presence of television cameras and the knowledge that a large audience was watching began in earnest that year forever changing the dynamics of the convention itself. Time magazine enthused in 1952 “The TV feeling may have a healthy effect on politics by bringing the country much closer to the words and actions of its politicians.”
The television coverage also put 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.
And with it the introduction of the teleprompter.
As Time magazine explained : The opening speech was delivered by National chairman his eyes glued to a gadget on the speakers stand known as the teleprompter ( which spells out a prepared speech line for line on a moving band)
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 television, capturing the circus of the convention, the greatest show on earth.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.