National Special Events

Like watching a hockey game, but with paid politicians as major players. That’s the way one senior television producer described political conventions, federal-provincial conferences and the constitutional debates of the ’70s.

Political conventions took on a life of their own if only because of the extremely heavy deployment of electronics.

Not only was there the question of multiple candidates, but the fact that competition thrived among broadcasters. As a result, networks and a variety of local stations sought accreditation, and with that, places from which to work.

The earliest conventions were small enough to fit into hotel ballrooms. But as the electronic media flourished, and the popularity of selecting political leaders in party-like surroundings grew, conventions moved into arenas such as Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, and the Ottawa hockey rink at Lansdowne Park.

Before the days of portable short-wave radios and microwave transmission for television, and well before the cellular telephone, heavy reliance was placed on cables to link the hot news areas of a convention to an anchoring position and then outbound to a studio or network.

The first real test of television and radio coverage of a political convention was the Conservative party 1956 convention where John Diefenbaker became its leader. It took place at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens and set the framework for how Canadian political conventions would be organized for years to come, regardless of political party.

With a stage area established for speeches on what normally would have been the ice of the arena, candidates were allocated sections in the seating just behind the boards and opposite the stage, where they and their supporters could see and hear everything.

Reporters would take up positions on the ice area directly in front of each of the candidates, equipped with microphones and fixed cameras, with multi-cored cables, stretched from each position to the mobile truck/control room.

Eventually, CTV developed what it called the “Peepie-Creepie” camera, the forerunner of today’s hand-held portable cameras. In effect, it was a fixed camera on a wooden platform with wheels that was pushed around from place to place, with its cabling dragging behind, sending the image to film which was then rapidly developed, edited and played.

Radio and television anchors were set up on makeshift table-top facilities, high up in the stands, overlooking the entire scene.

The reporters were linked to their anchor positions with hard-wired broadcast microphones and two-way intercom systems and held their positions for virtually the entire proceedings, doing interviews and reports as warranted.

Much of the interconnection in the first convention or two was done by the telephone company. As the years went by, technology started changing the face of the behind-the-scenes operations. The space industry began to have an impact on broadcasting facilities in that portable uplinks to satellite, truck-mounted mobiles, fibre optics, and of course, wireless audio transmissions became the tools of the trade for coverage of conventions and other special events such as international conferences, federal-provincial meetings, and any other event of significance that attracted live broadcast coverage. (audio below).

The anchor positions became more sophisticated, the number of reporters increased, but by and large, the concept that had its beginnings in 1956 remained intact.

Paul Akehurst may have been the first broadcaster to go into business as a conference planner when he became coordinator of a Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in 1972. And Tom Young, a walking encyclopaedia of engineering and technical know-how, became the point man from the late ’70s and into the 21st century for the co-ordination of broadcasters’ technical requirements.

The biggest issue today is the co-ordination of radio frequencies. The use of wireless and RF technology, as explained by Young, has just taken off. Everything from cell phones to Blackberries, PDA’s to point-to-point microwave. The spectrum is a valuable commodity and its co-ordination is more and more a challenge. Not only the broadcasters, but the event organizers are also using all sorts of wireless gear, and co-ordination to eliminate mutual interference is a key issue. (audio below).

In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth made the first official visit of a Royal couple to Canada, spending six weeks on a coast-to coast tour.

However it was not until 1951 that Princess Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, initiated what was to become an extended series of Royal tours of Canada.

Subsequent to the 1951 visit, and following her ascension to the throne on the death of her father in 1952, Queen Elizabeth II and her consort have made 20 official visits, and numerous stop-overs in Canada, while en route to other Commonwealth destinations.

There have also been numerous visits by other members of the Royal family over the years. The Duke himself was a relatively frequent visitor on personal business. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother visited Canada on 10 official occasions from 1954 to 1989.

Among the highlights of visits by Her Majesty were the opening of the Parliamentary session in 1957, a 45-day tour of the country in 1959 which included the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway with U.S. President Eisenhower, the 1964 visits to Charlottetown and Quebec City, one hundred years after the initial meetings to create Canada, the nation’s Centennial celebrations in 1967, the Montreal Olympics in 1970, the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton in 1978, and the proclamation of the Constitution in Ottawa in 1982.

As early as the visit by then Princess Elizabeth in 1951, the Federal government established a system to coordinate and assist media assigned to cover the Royal visits. Not unlike the coverage of General Elections, there was a National media group that followed the entire tour, and local media participants who would provide the reportage on Royal activities in their specific area of broadcast.

The CBC was charged with being the host broadcaster, providing pool feeds of video and audio where applicable. In the 1960s, it almost became a full-time job for Dave Knapp, who began his broadcast career in Montreal private radio and headed up all Royal Visit coverage for the CBC for more than 30 years. He even received a citation from Her Majesty in recognition of his work. (audio below)

Sidney Margles – February, 2005

Audio Clips:

Dave Knapp describes improvements in camera mobility for covering political conventions
Tom Young explains the problems of frequency co-ordination in live event coverage
Dave Knapp recalls being honoured by the Queen for his Royal Event coverage