Television, Technology & Elections

The presidential debate two weeks ago drew an estimated audience of nearly 67 million viewers. Buzz on Facebook was high and the debate generated an impressive 10.3 Million tweets in 90 minutes, a new political-tweeting record on Twitter.

Television and technology play an essential role in delivering information to the public about a candidate’s platform and position on important issues. Broadcast television coverage of elections is more robust than ever and for candidates it is the medium of choice when it comes to reaching voters. In a world where radio, television and the internet are an ever-present part of our daily lives, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the debates weren’t televised.

Until the second half of the 20th century, the vast majority of people in the United States were unable to watch the debates.  Access to those important conversations was limited to the fortunate homes that had the technology to either watch on television or listen on the radio.

The election of John F. Kennedy, illustrates perfectly the profound impact of television on elections.  Many of you are probably already familiar with why that particular election was such a seminal event in intersection of television and politics.  According to a survey after the first debate between Kennedy and Nixon, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had come out victorious. However, for those individuals who watched the debate on television and were able to contrast Nixon’s expressions and demeanor with Kennedy’s, they were more likely to believe that Kennedy had prevailed.  From that moment on, it became increasingly clear that broadcast television would play an important role in shaping elections. By providing the public with a more holistic view (literally) of the candidates, broadcast television would forever change how elections were fought and won in this country.

Televising presidential debates on broadcast television has been a political game changer and over the past 52 years, the role of television in politics has grown ten-fold.  From political advertising, to televising political conventions, to the ever-increasing number of political talk and news shows, all of these are now permanent fixtures on broadcast television.

Public access to free, over-the-air broadcast television is still critically important to ensuring that the electorate – that means me and you – have an opportunity to be a part of the political dialogue. We’ve come a long way from people having to gather around a radio or crowd in front of television shop windows to watch the news.