How Conventions Have Been Covered, From NBC to YouTube

Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia, after Michelle's speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver on August 25, 2008. First there was radio. Then came TV. Now everyone’s streaming from the floor on Snapchat. Damir Sagolj/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

1924: The Republican Convention was the first convention broadcast on radio.

1940: NBC's New York City affiliate telecasts the Republican convention in Philadelphia, making it officially the first televised convention. It had an estimated audience of 50,000 "televiewers," as the convention coverage described the viewers.

In Philadelphia, television was used to accommodate the overflow of spectators from Convention Hall. Scenes of the convention were picked up in Tulsa, Oklahoma—about 1,800 miles away—which established a new long-distance record in America for television reception.

1948: The Republican Convention was part of the first public demonstration of stratovision, a technique by which a plane picked up telecasts from a ground station and rebroadcast them over an area about 500 miles in diameter.

1952: The Republican Convention was the first nationally televised convention, followed by the Democratic Convention later that summer.

A New York Telephone Company newspaper ad published around the time of the conventions explained how they allowed millions to see the conventions live for the first time: "In New York State, for example, these wires carry news and pictures of the convention daily into 125 newspaper offices, 111 radio stations, [and] 14 television stations."

Several other advances in the media's technology occurred in 1952. All three news networks used walkie-talkies. ABC used a periscope attachment that allowed cameras to "see" over crowds and other obstructions. ABC and CBS created composite television pictures for the first time. NBC used a wireless portable camera called a "walkie-lookie," which cameramen could carry with them alongside roving reporters.

1960: CBS News sent more than 300 correspondents, technicians, editors, cameramen and other support staff to the parties' conventions. By July, when both parties' conventions were held, the network had been planning technical coverage for over 14 months.

1964: An ABC News ad published in The New York Times on the first day of the Democratic convention promised to bring "every bit" of convention news that "550 hand-picked reporters and technicians can deliver." The news outlet repeated this figure in other ads too. In a separate ad, NBC News claimed its "convention coverage attracted a larger audience than the other networks combined " (emphasis NBC's).

Radio Free Europe broadcast coverage of the Democratic convention to communist countries in Eastern Europe. Telstar and Relay communications satellites fed live portions of radio-television coverage to Western Europe.

1968: The Democratic convention's upheaval spread to the media when the DNC cut the number of media passes to control traffic on the convention floor. Daily newspapers were limited to 55 floor passes for the use of more than 1,000 newsmen (in the past, as many as 300–400 were issued).

Newspaper officials said anything less than 100 floor passes was inadequate. The three news networks were each limited to a camera crew of three men to work the camera and two reporters—six reporters total across the major news networks to cover news from the convention floor!

Independent radio and television networks were limited to 25 floor passes (they had received 100 or more in previous years); periodicals and magazines, such as Time and Newsweek, received five (compared to 50 or more in the past); and photographers were allotted 20 (they normally received 100). Media passes were also cut at the Republican convention, but not as drastically.

1980: CNN broadcast its first party convention, the Republican convention in Detroit, with Bernard Shaw and Mary Alice Williams. Williams served as both co-anchor and convention floor reporter. CNN had been in existence a mere six weeks at the time.

Also, the Republican and Democratic conventions were covered live by individual television stations, a "first" made feasible by lower transmission costs of satellites compared with those of land lines.

1984: C-SPAN cablecasts live, uninterrupted gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions for the first time. C-SPAN is broadcasting gavel-to-gavel coverage again this year.

By 1988, the three major news networks' audiences for their convention coverage had become so small that the networks cut their broadcasts to about two hours for each convention night, while C-SPAN and CNN carried gavel-to-gavel coverage.

By 1992, PBS, Univision, Comedy Central and MTV also had live broadcasts of primetime convention coverage.

2000: In a September 1999 memo, Republican convention manager Chip DiPaula wrote that the GOP convention expected 15,000 members of the media, including 4,000 members of the international press. The DNC estimated the same number at their convention.

2004: Bloggers received invitations to cover national political conventions for the first time, with 30 bloggers invited to the DNC and about 15 to the RNC.

2008: Facebook launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, and the iPhone in 2007, so social media did not yet have a major role in the 2008 conventions. Myspace was then the most prominent of the social networks. During the 2008 campaign, 16 of the 19 presidential candidates linked on their campaign websites to an official Myspace account. Barack Obama was the only candidate to have 100,000 "followers"; most had fewer than 40.

2012: Both parties' conventions were live-streamed for the first time; YouTube was the official live-stream provider.

2016: YouTube is streaming the conventions for the first time using a 360-degree video. Multiple outlets, including Facebook and DIRECTTV through AT&T, are streaming the parties' conventions using standard live-stream technology, though YouTube is again the official live-stream provider.

As the official communications, video, and technology provider for both parties' conventions, AT&T tripled 4G coverage in Cleveland, upgraded 165 LTE stations near the Quicken Loans Arena, and added 50,000 feet of fiber and copper wiring to the regional network.

Karlyn Bowman is senior fellow and research coordinator at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).