The TV cameras transformed Republican presidential nominee Thomas Dewey’s five o’clock shadow into “a full beard, something like Abraham Lincoln’s,” another columnist wrote. If speakers “could see themselves as the television audience does, they’d sit down and weep.”
In the hot, non-air-conditioned hall in July, “the intense light demanded by those primitive television cameras raised dark patches of sweat” on the speakers and their clothing, NBC News President Reuven Frank wrote years later.
This week, TV networks will be facing new kinds of challenges adjusting convention coverage because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democrats, who’d planned to gather in Milwaukee from Monday through Thursday, plan a nearly virtual convention to nominate former vice president Joe Biden. He and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, will deliver their speeches at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del. The Republicans moved their convention from Charlotte, to Jacksonville, Fla., but sharply curtailed events there. President Trump will probably deliver his acceptance speech from the White House on Aug. 27.
It may be the biggest adjustment for the broadcasters since the transfer from radio to TV coverage 72 years ago. Back then the “radio boys” looked down on the “TV kids.” CBS had a hard time persuading its radio news star Edward R. Murrow to also do some TV commentary.
“Visuals” suddenly were in demand. During her speech, Luce waved a steak and a carton of milk to protest rising prices. CBS’s Don Hewitt, later the executive producer of “60 Minutes," “raced into the hall — down two narrow flights and through the security guards — to retrieve” Luce’s props “and give them to Ed Murrow, who waved them at the home audience a second time,” NBC’s Frank said.
Experimental TV coverage had begun at the 1940 and 1944 conventions. But 1948 saw the first regional coverage with the major TV networks beaming pictures to 18 stations along the East Coast.
Life magazine sponsored NBC’s gavel-to-gavel coverage, even taking over the news department. NBC’s parent company, the Radio Corporation of America, was more interested in selling its new RCA Victor television sets, advertised as providing “an eye witness” to the political conventions. A 10-inch model went for $325, equal to about $3,500 today. There were about 35,000 TV sets in the United States.
The TV coverage gave Americans their first look inside the political conventions, including the colorful demonstrations when a candidate is nominated. This, too, backfired. Many Americans, wrote New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, were shocked to see that nominees for president of the United States “are chosen in a mixed setting of country circus, street carnival, medicine show and Fourth of July picnic.”
The Democrats took note of the challenges for their convention two weeks later, also in Philadelphia in order to use the same TV equipment. In contrast to Luce, California Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, a former movie actress, showed up in her best Hollywood makeup for her convention speech.
The Democrats stationed six makeup people below the speakers’ stand to apply TV touch-ups. Some veteran male politicians still balked.
The convention chairman, House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, spurned advice to apply makeup to his shiny bald head. But he went bareheaded in the sun for several weeks before the convention to develop a camera-friendly tan.
The televised convention culminated in a seven-hour marathon session the night that President Harry Truman was both nominated and gave an acceptance speech. At 5:45 p.m. TV cameras showed NBC’s David Brinkley describing Truman’s departure from Union Station in Washington. In Philadelphia, the president cooled his heels for more than four hours as friends and foes vied for TV face time inside the convention hall.
First, pro-segregation delegates from Mississippi and Alabama stormed off the floor in protest of Truman’s civil rights plan. As one Alabama newspaper explained, “the nation’s camera lens and television screens had to be served.” Later when Truman was officially nominated, delegates celebrated on the convention floor before the cameras for 38 minutes.
By the time the president entered the hall to give his acceptance speech, it was 1:43 a.m., not exactly prime time. Before Rayburn could introduce Truman, there was one more bit of TV business. A woman opened several cartons and out flew 48 white doves, one for each state.
The doves flew up toward the fans in the rafters. Many of the birds kept flying back to the speaker’s stand, where an angry Rayburn kept picking them up and throwing them in the air. Viewers all along the East Coast could hear Rayburn shouting on live TV, “Get those goddamn pigeons out of here.”
Truman, who was a huge underdog to Dewey in the election, finally took the podium and gave a rousing speech. In the view of veteran New York Times media critic Jack Gould, this was the moment that TV political coverage came of age.
“If there had been any doubt that television was going to place an increasing premium on personality in politics, it was removed by the appearance of President Truman shortly after 2 a.m. on Thursday,” Gould wrote. “Appearing in a white suit and a dark tie, which perhaps is the best masculine garb for the video cameras, the president’s performance was probably his most impressive since assuming office.”
Nationwide TV coverage began at the 1952 conventions and has continued ever since.
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