The TV Image
Paul T. David
The Nation, 14 December 1963, pp. 413–414
Paul T. David, senior author of The Politics of National Party Conventions (Brookings Institution, 1960), teaches political science at the University of Virginia.
The decision of the networks to omit all commercials and
cancel all entertainment features, devoting themselves to coverage of events
until after the Kennedy funeral, is in itself one of the most remarkable
episodes of our times. Evidently there was a precedent, perhaps more than one,
that existed at least in the mind of Dr. Frank Stanton, who has been in the
industry long enough to have a memory. But the precedents, such as they were,
were laid down in the days of radio and not television. Many of us remember well
the day that Franklin D. Roosevelt died, but television was not functioning on
any wide basis at that time.
Television, having committed itself to exclusive coverage of a single subject for the equivalent of three to four calendar days, had the maximum impact, both quantitatively and qualitatively, of which it is capable. Governor Albertis S. Harrison, Jr., of Virginia, for example, meeting the camera late Saturday for comment, said, “I never in my life expected to spend six hours looking at television, but last night I did.”
So did all the rest of us. It does not take a Nielson survey to suggest that very nearly the entire population was looking at television for many hours that Friday afternoon and evening, with lesser but still tremendous viewing audiences on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
The effect has been a learning experience so great and so complex that its full importance cannot easily be assessed. The only time when human attitudes change rapidly in large groups is under the sudden impact of great events. The present case has every potential for a massive change in attitudes.
Nothing could have been more calculated to stir emotions than the Kennedy assassination and the suddenness of the Johnson accession. Television has multiplied the effect of those events by hours upon hours of sharp visual imagery. The imagery, moreover, was not confined to the events in Dallas and Washington. To fill the time, if for no other reason, there were also many hours of the Kennedy political biography—a television obituary such as has never occurred before. There was also an extensive coverage of the Johnson political biography; and all along there was the constant reporting from abroad, and the conversations with the network correspondents abroad.
What the networks did was eminently fitting and proper, and in no way calculated to give partisan advantage to anyone. I suggest, however, that it has already had immense political consequences. Those consequences are almost entirely to the advantage of the Democratic Party and the prospective Democratic nominee, Lyndon Johnson. They left me convinced that he will probably be elected in 1964.
The record of the Democratic Party for the last three years has been wrapped up as the record of a man who has already become a folk hero, a martyred President. Nothing could be better to run on in 1964.
Johnson has been revealed as a man who was an active, influential, and highly successful Vice President. This may not be how the Washington press corps remembers it, but this is how it was shown to the American people at a moment when they were prepared and willing to pay attention.
The film clips from Johnson’s many speeches and appearances abroad were especially impressive. His origins in frontier America were evident, the delivery was excellent, and he made sense. If he goes forward with the Kennedy commitment to meet his Republican opponent in a series of debates—a commitment that he would find difficult to avoid, even should he wish to do so—Johnson will probably give a good account of himself in the debating situation. His whole experience suggests that he will be at his best in the direct confrontation that television makes possible.
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