the United States the Democratic and Republican political parties,
as well as numerous smaller parties, hold conventions every four
years to nominate candidates for president and vice president and
to adopt party platforms. For the two major parties these conventions
are currently four day events held during the summer of each presidential
election year. The first national political conventions emerged
in the 1830s as a reform to the caucus system, which had been heavily
controlled by party machines and party bosses. While the functions
of the nominating conventions have not changed in the past one-hundred
and sixty years, advances in communication technologies during the
20th century have had great influence on the nature of the meetings.
The most dramatic of these alterations have come from television
first experiments in televising the nominating conventions began
in Philadelphia in 1948; by 1952, both the Democratic and Republican
conventions were broadcast nationwide on television. The impact
of the medium, only recently networked into a truly national phenomenon,
was immediate. After watching the first televised Republican convention
in 1952, Democratic party officials made last minute changes to
their own convention in attempts to maintain the attention of viewers
By 1956, both parties further amended their convention programs
to better fit the demands of television coverage. Party officials
condensed the length of the convention, created uniform campaign
themes for each party, adorned convention halls with banners and
patriotic decorations, placed television crews in positions with
flattering views of the proceedings, dropped daytime sessions, limited
welcoming speeches and parliamentary organization procedures, scheduled
sessions to reach a maximum audience in prime time, and eliminated
seconding speeches for vice presidential candidates. Additionally,
the presence of television cameras encouraged parties to conceal
intra-party battling and choose geographic host cities amenable
to their party.
the early 1950s, conventions actually selected as well as nominated
the party's candidates. Today, the presidential nominees of the
major parties are generally determined before the convention takes
place. The prevalence of state political primaries, the increased
power of television as a source of political news, the trend of
early presidential campaigning, and the prominence of political
polling almost ensure that each party's candidates are selected
prior to the nominating convention. Indeed, since 1952, only two
presidential nominees have not competed in the primary season (Aldai
Stevenson in 1952 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968). And, in all but
the Democratic convention of 1952, the Democratic and Republican
nominees were chosen on the first ballot. Therefore, the conventions
broadcast on television are no longer geared toward selecting nominees,
but staged to celebrate candidates and attract television coverage.
coverage of the convention has assigned new roles to political parties,
candidates and television news divisions in the presidential selection
process. Today, political parties must share the convention stage
with aspiring candidates and prominent journalists. Nominating conventions
are no longer controlled by party bosses making decisions in smoke-filled
rooms. Contemporary conventions are planned by professional convention
managers and consultants who see the nominating convention as an
unequaled opportunity for the party to obtain free, rehearsed exposure
on television newscasts. Thus, parties use nominating conventions
to project a desirable party image, and inspire party loyalty.
presidential candidates, the televised convention has brought freedom
from the party establishment. Today, it is not uncommon for presidential
candidates to rise to prominence without party help. State political
primaries and television news and advertising allow a greater number
of candidates to seriously contest their party's nomination. Jimmy
Carter's nomination in 1976 provides an example of an outsider with
little national political experience benefiting from television
and the primary season. The candidacies of Jesse Jackson and Pat
Robertson also profited from political primaries and the televised
convention. Television coverage does, of course, ensure that today's
conventions are well attended by prominent politicians. Many high-profile
political leaders use the televised convention to launch their own
future presidential bids, promote their current legislative efforts,
or support other causes, groups or programs.
To the television news divisions, the national conventions are the
biggest extended political media events of the election year. The
networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC), as well as CNN and C-SPAN allocate
prime time coverage and assign their top personnel to the conventions.
Foote and Rimmer refer to convention coverage as the "'Olympics
of television journalism' where the networks have a rare opportunity
to go head-to-head on the same story."
contends presidential election years are unmatched showcases for
the rival networks to exhibit their competing talents. Inter-network
rivalry manifests itself in several ways: (1) the networks engage
in extensive advertising to capture the eye of the viewer, (2) the
conventions are used to introduce new items of television equipment,
(3) the networks compete in marshaling political consultants and
analysts to augment their coverage staffs, (4) the networks compete
for superiority in content, completeness and depth of coverage--it
is a race for "exclusives," "scoops" and "firsts," and for the unusual
"features" of a convention, (5) the networks compete to make news
with their coverage as well as to report the news of the conventions,
(6) the networks seek to overcome the bigness and confusion of the
convention and their coverage by personalizing coverage with anchor
correspondents, and (7) the networks compete for audiences and audience
factors indicate why television has made a commitment to broadcasting
the convention over the years, and why the networks strive continually
to create the "right" formats to attract audiences. From 1956 through
1976, for example, the networks covered conventions in their entirety.
Although ABC cut back on its broadcast in 1968, the other networks
continued gavel to gavel coverage through 1976. Since 1980, all
news outlets have cut back on their coverage. Future airtime is
expected to depend on the "newsworthyness" of the convention, largely
determined by the perceived competitiveness between the two party
tickets as well as potential conflict or infighting within one party's
much prefer to control the visual images broadcast to voters themselves,
as the Republicans did in 1984. In that year, the Republicans aired
Ronald Reagan's campaign film, A New Beginning--a film which celebrated
the Reagan presidency, transformed the art of political filmmaking
and, according to Morreale, established the televisual campaign
film as a centerpiece of the presidential campaign.
times, however, no one is able to control the conventions; political
officials and network executives and technicians alike are caught
up in events beyond their control. This was certainly the case in
the 1968 Democratic Convention, perhaps the most famous of all televised
events of this sort. On that occasion anti-war protesters demonstrated
outside the Chicago Convention Center, drawing down the wrath of
the Chicago police. Inside, the conflict was reflected in charges
and counter-charges, name-calling and recrimination. Much of this
activity was caught on camera, but the sense was that even the TV
cameras were reacting rather than controlling. Few conventions since
that time have been so dramatically bound to television, and most
are tightly controlled events exhibiting small moments of spontaneity.
of the convention system contend televised conventions inspire party
loyalty and enthusiasm, and allow the selection of a candidate that
represents the political middle rather than the extremes. Critics
allege today's nominating conventions are undemocratic spectacles
and propose replacing them with a national presidential primary
system. Despite these critiques, convention reform is unlikely.
Today's streamlined convention regularly attracts 30% television
market shares, providing an audience for television news divisions,
political parties and presidential candidates, alike. While television
coverage has brought many cosmetic changes to the convention, it
has not interfered with its basic functions. As in earlier days,
contemporary conventions continue to select presidential nominees,
create party enthusiasm, and present party platforms.
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also Political Processes
and Television; U.S.
Presidency and Television