Unconventional: Did TV Coverage Turn Political Conventions From News to Scripted Series?
As the 2012 political conventions come to a close, we thought we’d look back 60 years, to the 1952 conventions -- the first time the conventions were telecast to a national audience. Television was in its infancy, the United States was in the midst of the Cold War era, McCarthyism and anti-Communism were on everyone’s minds, and incumbent President Harry S. Truman had decided not to run. Ultimately, at their respective parties’ National Conventions, Democrats chose Governor Adlai Stevenson (Here is a video of him accepting the nomination) and the Republicans chose war hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower (video of 1952 Republican Convention).
Absent in 1952 were the hundreds of consultants, lighting designers, focus groups, stylists, and other modern-day staples of the political process. Here are some of our Archive of American Television interviewees speaking about how different -- and, at times, how real -- the process was:
Before 1952, conventions were not produced with the audience in mind.
"All three networks took a feed. There was one director of the pool and he would look at the six pictures, and he would pick one, and it went out to all three networks. Everybody had the same picture. If the president or Speaker of the House, or the majority leader, or the head of the party, was speaking, we’d follow him for a while. They ran on too long. We learned a valuable lesson. They ran till two, and three, and four o’clock in the morning. People got tired. The hall would be half-empty, and we knew nobody was looking at television by that hour. We learned then to cut everything back. That’s how '52, '56, and '60 were quite successful. They were produced with audience in mind, not the candidates." -- Bob Doyle, Director of pool coverage for the 1952 conventions
Visual effects were primitive.
"We're at the 1952 convention. When somebody was speaking, if you took a cutaway shot, you had to dip the track for Cronkite to say 'that's Senator Taft, that's Governor Dewey, that's Nelson Rockefeller.' I said, 'I wish we could superimpose those names.' But there was no way that the artist could make these supers fast enough.
I'm sitting in a diner one morning pondering this problem. The waitress says, 'What'll you have?' I look up at her, and I look up at the board over her head that said ‘soup 35 cents, hamburger, 75 cents, apple pie, $1.25.’ I said, ‘I'll take that board with the little white letters on the black background.’ She called the boss over. I said, ‘How much do you want for that board?’ He said ‘I'll sell it to you for 50 bucks.’ I took the board off the wall, took the letters, went out to the hall and said, 'When you see a guy, put up the blackboard and you grab the letters and you put R-O-C-K-E-F-E-L-L-E-R.'
That was a first time we ever superimposed names, and it all came out of a diner. You were making up stuff as you went along."
-- Don Hewitt, CBS producer
There was no such thing as media savvy.
"In 1952, the challenge was to be on the air for hours on-end, and we were there for the whole gavel-to-gavel coverage. The conventions went on forever. They were the genuine event, as they had been for more than 100 years. [Later] they... lost that character as the political parties took over and tried to clean them up for television.
But those 1952 conventions were pure conventions. The chairs they used were kind of picnic chairs, so that as the day wore on, they got jumbled up and all over the floor. It wasn’t very well air-conditioned. People removed their coats and most of them were men and sat there in their suspenders, their ties undone, [and they] read the newspaper through a lot of the proceedings, shouted back and forth. [There were] demonstrations on the floor at the podium, [and] the chairman of the meeting stood there pounding the gavel….The platform was debated actually on the floor of the convention." -- Walter Cronkite, CBS News
1952 was the last ballot convention to choose a nominee.
"I covered both conventions in 1964. Those were years in which things happened, although the last multiple-ballot convention to choose a presidential nominee was 1952, when it took the Republicans two ballots to put Dwight Eisenhower up for the presidency. Still, in those days things happened that mattered and could change the course of a convention.
Today it’s all done for television. It’s all canned before it starts. It’s boring in the sense that there are no surprises. I think conventions today are important in some senses. [They] still expose national candidates, perhaps for the first time, to a wider audience, and I think that’s important. The work of the convention is nothing, but in those days it was very interesting." -- Sam Donaldson, ABC News
OK, maybe there was a little media-savvy, but it backfired.
"There was the great Taft/Eisenhower fight at the 1952 convention, where television was kept out of the crucial meetings of the credentials committee and of the Republican National Committee. The Taft people tried to drive through and the reporters were allowed in, but the cameras were not. So the cameras took pictures of a closed door. And that closed-door symbol is much more important than fact. Television pictures of closed doors, I think, got Eisenhower the nomination. Certainly after 1952 the parties knew that it was all television that made their case." -- Reuven Frank, NBC News
The technology wasn’t so great, either.
"We had floor reporters who would report back on-camera. They had big backpacks that they carried with the electronic equipment for the microphone.... Because the radio transmitters for those backpacks were long antennae that the people bumped into and interrupted the transmission, they had one of these little beanies with big long antennae up there with a little plastic disk around it so it wouldn’t touch anybody And with the pack on their back and the headset, they looked for all the world like men from Mars. They looked pretty silly, to tell you the truth. But it was effective.
…. I suppose it would be effective if there were a story to tell in the conventions today, which there is not. They’re only shows now. They’re not real conventions…. And as a consequence, we have now been selecting our candidates before they ever get to the convention. There’s no real battle. The big story is gone." -- Walter Cronkite, CBS News
The Huffington Post just reported that an episode of TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras” spinoff “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” matched that of CNN’s coverage of President Clinton’s live DNC nominating speech, and bested the RNC ratings in the previous week. With those numbers, it will be interesting to see what the consultants and stylists will recommend to keep the ratings up in 2016. Maybe a mud belly-flop contest?