PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATING CONVENTIONS AND TELEVISION

In 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 coverage.

The 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 at home.

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.

Until 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.

Television 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.

For 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."

Waltzer 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 ratings.

These 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 nomination.

Parties 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.

At 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.

Advocates 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.

-Sharon Jarvis

FURTHER READING

Adams, W. C. "Convention Coverage." Public Opinion (Washington, D.C.), 1985.

Fant, C. H. "Televising Presidential Conventions, 1952-1980." Journal of Communication (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 1980.

Farrell, T. B. "Political Conventions as Legitimation Ritual." Communication Monographs (Falls Church, Virginia), 1978.

Foot, J., and R. Rimmer. "The Ritual of Convention Coverage in 1980." In, Adams, W. C., editor. Television Coverage of the 1980 Presidential Campaign. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex, 1983.

Henry, D. "The Rhetorical Dynamic of Mario Cuomo's 1984 Keynote Address: Situation, Speaker, Metaphor." Southern Speech Communication Journal (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), 1988.

Morreale, J. (1991). A New Beginning: A Textual Frame Analysis of the Political Campaign Film. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.

_______________. The Presidential Campaign Film: A Critical History. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1993.

Paletz, D. L., and M. Elson. "Television Coverage of Presidential Conventions: Now You See It, Now You Don't." Political Science Quarterly (New York), 1976 .

Reinsch, J. L. "Broadcasting the Conventions." Journal of Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 1968.

Shafer, B. Bifurcated Politics: Evolution and Reform in the National Party Convention. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Smith, L. D. "Narrative Styles in Network Coverage of the 1984 Nominating Conventions. Western Journal of Speech Communication (Portland, Oregon), 1988.

Smith, L., and D. Nimmo. Cordial Concurrence: Orchestrating National Party Conventions in the Telepolitical Age. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Waltzer, H. (1966). "In the Magic Lantern: Television Coverage of the 1964 National Conventions." Public Opinion Quarterly (New York), 1966.

Womack, D. (1985). "Live ABC, CBS, and NBC Interviews During Three Democratic Conventions." Journalism Quarterly (Urbana, Illinois), 1985.

_______________. "Status of News Sources Interviewed During Presidential Conventions." Journalism Quarterly (Urbana, Illinois), 1986.

_______________. "Live TV Interviews at the 1984 GOP Convention." Journalism Quarterly,(Urbana, Illinois), 1988.

_______________. "Live Television Interviews at the 1988 Democratic Convention." Journalism Quarterly (Urbana, Illinois), 1989.

 

See also Political Processes and Television; U.S. Presidency and Television