Conventional Wisdom

Conventional Voices

By Michael Waitzman

Television coverage of the national conventions of the political parties began in 1948, just as the purpose of the conventions was once again in transition.  By the middle of the twentieth century, the more popularly-representative state delegations made up of party regulars had evolved into powerful “smoke-filled rooms,” manned mostly by party insiders, from which candidates who were virtually unknown to most voters could (and did) emerge as their party’s presidential nominees.  State political primaries would begin to give the average party member a greater role in the selection of the party’s presidential nominee starting in the 1950s.  By the seventies, it was almost taken for granted that whoever won the most delegates in the state primaries would be their party’s nominee.


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Former NBC News president Reuven Frank points out in his 1988 article in the New York Times, “1948: Live…From Philadelphia…It’s the National Conventions,” that in 1948  three of the four major parties held their conventions in Philadelphia so that coverage by the television networks would be more feasible. While the Republican and Democratic conventions offered some old-fashioned suspense and surprises on the way to nominating Thomas Dewey and Harry Truman, respectively, it was the Progressive Party’s convention nominating Henry Wallace which most served as a portent of things to come. Frank writes of the Progressive Party’s convention: “nothing happened except what was supposed to happen. Another first: It was the first political convention intended by its organizers to be only a television show.” Television coverage and the move towards political primaries would in the coming years render political conventions mainly showcases for the parties and their nominees who had already been selected in the primaries.

Since the sixties the national conventions of the political parties have more and more served to rubber-stamp and showcase nominees selected in the states’ primaries. From 1956 through 1976, the major television networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the national conventions, with only ABC first cutting back in 1968, and NBC and CBS limiting their coverage beginning in 1980. As the networks have cut back on their coverage, the political parties have had to tailor the planning of their conventions to correspond to that limited coverage, arranging for major events and speeches to occur during prime time, eliminating many of the lesser speeches and events which had formerly been mainstays of the conventions, and even limiting the duration of some of the major speeches.

As Sharon Jarvis points out in “Presidential Nominating Conventions,” in The Museum of Broadcast Communications’ Encyclopedia of Television, (New York:  Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004, 2nd Edition, Horace Newcomb, Ed.), “Viewership for nominating conventions has decreased over the years.” Citing Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Jarvis states that while in 1952 the networks aired sixty hours of convention coverage of each party’s convention, allowing 80 percent of U.S. households to watch about ten to thirteen hours’ worth, by 1996 network coverage of each convention was about eight hours, and 10 percent of households watched.  Citing the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Jarvis points out that in 2000, about 20 percent of the public viewed two or more hours of convention coverage.

While some believe that the overall impact of television coverage of national political conventions has been negative, many think just the opposite. Ian Breen, in his August 2004 piece in the Atlantic, “Notes on the Conventions,” in which he revisits several earlier convention-covering pieces in that magazine spanning a period of more than a century, quotes ABC newsman Howard K. Smith, from a July 1968 article by Charles McDowell, Jr., “Carnival of Excess: TV at the Conventions:”

       Many things are wrong with political conventions, but they were wronger long
       before television. Speeches and demonstrations that once lasted for hours now
       take only minutes. Thanks to television, the viewer is generally better, and
       sooner informed than is the spectator in the convention hall.  When there is
       confusion, it is frequently the television or radio newsman who first provides
       the needed clarification.

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Photo credits—Frank Sinatra & John F. Kennedy: Photofest; Maria Shriver & Ted Kennedy: Photofest


Conventions Quiz

Who were John F. Kennedy’s main competitors for the 1960 Democratic Party presidential nomination?

Which year did television coverage of the political conventions begin?

Who was the last presidential candidate to be nominated at his party’s convention without having run in the state primaries?