The Birth of Political Television
In March 1948, Don Hewitt was 26 years old and working at Acme News Pictures in New York handling photographs, when a friend called from CBS telling him there was a job for him there.
In 1948, CBS meant radio, and Hewitt was confused. "What would a radio network want with a guy with picture experience?" Hewitt asked.
"It's television," his friend said.
"What-a-vision?" Hewitt asked.
He was unfamiliar with the word. But he could be forgiven. Though television had been invented prior to World War II, there were only about 350,000 TVs — then called "receiving sets" — in existence in America in 1948, only 18 cities that had TV stations and very little original programming.
But 1948 looked like a good year to change that, because 1948 was a presidential election year and TV figured it might be able to make politics look interesting. Somehow.
The political conventions were the place to start. The Republicans and Democrats were both going to hold their conventions in Philadelphia, and for the first time in history the TV networks would broadcast the conventions live from "gavel bang to gavel bang," as Newsweek termed it.
Actually, only nine cities on the East Coast from New York City to Richmond, Va., would get the picture live (AT&T had just finished laying a coaxial cable linking them), but the rest of the TV stations in America would be shipped kinescopes — movies of TV pictures — by air mail and could broadcast them the next day.
Giant aerials were erected atop the 17-year-old Municipal Auditorium in Philadelphia, which had been spruced up at a cost of $650,000 for a new sound system, roof and interior paint job of blue and gold. It was money well spent because now everything would look good and sound good for TV. Air conditioning was rejected as too expensive.
The stage was set, and everyone was so giddy about the new venture that few bothered to plan for it. The networks didn't really know what it would cover. Or how. Or why.
"You mean people are going to sit at home and watch little pictures in a box?" Hewitt asked when his friend at CBS offered him a job on the phone. "I don't believe it."
"Go look at it," his friend said.
Hewitt did, fell in love with the medium and, as executive producer of "60 Minutes," presided over one of the most successful shows in the history of television.
But in 1948, as a newly minted "associate director" — TV was making up titles as it went along — he was put up along with the rest of the CBS team in a fraternity house at the University of Pennsylvania. (The city had only 6,000 hotel rooms, whose average rates had been doubled to an outrageous $12 per night.)
"I didn't know very much about TV in Philadelphia, but neither did anybody else," Hewitt told me years ago when I interviewed him for a magazine piece on the 1948 conventions.
But CBS had a big radio star — Edward R. Murrow — and he agreed to do television. It worked out.
"We were plowing new ground," Hewitt said. "And the conventions were an event for one reason only: There were primaries, but they didn't determine the nominee. The conventions did. The minute primaries became the primary way of naming the candidate, conventions lost their appeal." But people seemed to enjoy watching television, and politicians were quick to catch on to the potential of the new medium. Harry Truman, the incumbent president, had a television in the Oval Office — another first — and he watched it.
So he may have noticed that his opponent, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, did not look good on TV at the Republican Convention. As some journalists noted — political reporters had, virtually overnight, been converted into theater critics without realizing it — the TV cameras accentuated five o'clock shadows, and Dewey looked like a vagrant on TV. (Richard Nixon would have the same problem.)
Truman, on the other hand, looked tanned and fit on TV at his convention. To accept the nomination, he wore a dazzling white suit, white shirt and black tie, which, The New York Times noted, was "the best masculine garb for the video cameras."
Everybody was learning about TV. Especially about pictures. Pictures on the screen seemed as important — maybe more important! — than the words spoken by the politicians.
When at the Democratic Convention party stalwart India Edwards wanted to demonstrate the high price of milk and meat, which she blamed on the Republican Congress, she held up a quart of milk and dripping raw steak. Don Hewitt raced down to the podium, snatched up both the milk and the steak, and raced back to the studio so Edward R. Murrow could hold them up again for the cameras.
Four years later, the number of TV sets in America had jumped to nearly 19 million. TV seemed like it was here to stay.
"By 1952, CBS was running a school teaching politicians how to act on TV," Hewitt told me. "When I heard that, I said: 'What are you doing? The whole appeal of convention coverage is to watch a guy pick his nose or scratch his crotch!' The parties suddenly realized that all of America was privy to their shenanigans, the donnybrooks. The parties realized that we were showing what they didn't want shown."
So conventions became sanitized. They no longer picked the nominees — the primaries did — and party leaders didn't want any controversies marring the TV show. So the conventions became very dull stage productions, occasionally interrupted by a good speech or two.
"Today, they really mean nothing," Hewitt told me. "It is not a news event any more. It's just a large commercial for the Democrats and Republicans. I always wondered why we didn't charge both national parties commercial rates to plug their product."
Don Hewitt died Wednesday at age 86. His question is still a good one.
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