Speaker Martin's Television Debut:
The House and Television

Television cameras in the House Chamber/tiles/non-collection/e/ex_tech_tv_camera_pa.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
For years, television cameras had covered special events in the House Chamber such as State of the Union Addresses and speeches by foreign dignitaries. It was not until the late 1970s, however, that sufficient support existed for live televised coverage of House Floor debate.
Nearly a half century elapsed from the invention of television to the broadcasting of House Floor proceedings. During the 1920s and 1930s, technological innovations allowed the transmission of images via radio waves. Television receivers first were sold to the public in 1939—though regular network programming did not begin for another decade. The first live television broadcast coverage of a congressional proceeding occurred on January 3, 1947, when cameras were allowed into the House Chamber to telecast the opening of the 80th Congress. It also was the last such broadcast for more than three decades, despite the fact that television became a major cultural phenomenon. Between 1949 and 1962, for instance, the percentage of American homes with television sets sky rocketed from about two percent to 90 percent.

The House Recording Studio control room overseeing footage of the House Chamber/tiles/non-collection/e/ex_tech_tv_recording_studio_pc.xml Image courtesy of the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives The House Recording Studio control room overseeing footage of the House Chamber
At first, Congress utilized the new technology sparingly. In the House Chamber, cameras occasionally telecast major speeches by Presidents and visiting dignitaries, but by 1952 they were banned not only from regular floor sessions but in committee hearings as well. Concern centered on television's effect on institutional practices and procedures: Which aspects of House proceedings should receive coverage? Who would make that determination? Who would operate and control the cameras? How would Members respond to working under the gaze of the cameras?

Post-Watergate reforms and a new spirit of transparency and accountability in government provided the momentum necessary for supporters of televised proceedings. In March 1977, Speaker Thomas “Tip” O'Neill of Massachusetts authorized a three-month closed-circuit testing period. Within a year, the House had passed measures to approve televised proceedings and fund the establishment of its own television system—thereby answering the critical question of who would control broadcasts. On March 19, 1979, public television and the C-SPAN network, tapping into the House television system, began regular live broadcasts of floor proceedings.

Jan. 27, 1939 The first U.S. government officials to appear on a live television broadcast were four Members of the U.S. House of Representatives: Speaker William Bankhead of Alabama, Majority Leader Sam Rayburn of Texas, Minority Leader Joe Martin of Massachusetts, and Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts. The group was interviewed in front of the Department of Agriculture along the National Mall. Images and sound were transmitted one-half mile away to the National Press Club where members of the press and Washingtonians gathered on the top floor in front of several television receiving sets.
Aug. 15, 1944 Senator Claude Pepper of Florida (later Representative) introduced S.J. 145 for the purpose of permitting sound and image broadcast coverage of Congress. One month later, Representative John Coffee of Washington, introduced an identical measure—H.J. Res. 311. Both bills noted “mounting public interest throughout the country” in both media. “If we don't broadcast the proceedings some time and keep step with the advances of radio, the people are going to begin asking whether we are afraid to let them hear what we are saying,” Pepper said. “It's their business we are transacting.”
Sept. 11, 1945 The House assigned positions for the first television cameras in the Chamber. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was allowed to place two cameras at the rear of the Chamber, to the right of the clock in the Gallery facing the Speaker's Rostrum. The network and House leaders did not agree to scheduled live telecasts of regular sessions. The network, however, hoped that if an event of “national interest” took place in the Chamber, it could pre-empt its schedule and cover live floor proceedings.
Jan. 3, 1947 The first live television broadcast from the House Chamber occurred during the opening session of the 80th Congress. It was carried by a local television station and carried via television cable to Philadelphia and New York, lasted two hours, and left the air when Speaker Joe Martin finished his opening address. The House had adopted a rule that television broadcasts could not be made when the Chamber got down to legislative business. In preparation for his own scheduled televised State of the Union Message, President Harry Truman watched the proceedings on a special 10-inch television set installed in the Oval Office.
Jan. 6, 1947 President Harry S. Truman became the first President to have his annual State of the Union Message—by tradition delivered to a Joint Session of Congress in the House Chamber—broadcast on live television.
Feb. 2, 1952 Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn barred television and radio coverage of House committee hearings—which the networks had covered intermittently. Telecasts of House Floor debate still was not authorized under the chamber's rules. Live television broadcasts from the House Chamber continued to be conducted during Joint Sessions when the President delivered the Annual State of the Union Message. Television also carried speeches by dignitaries addressing Joint Meetings of Congress: for instance, General Douglas MacArthur's “farewell address” on April 19, 1951 and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's speech on January 19, 1952.
Jan. 4, 1965 To capture more of the television audience, President Lyndon Johnson gave the first evening State of the Union address during primetime broadcasting.
1970 The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 permitted House committees to broadcast public hearings live via television and radio.
1974 Anticipating impeachment proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon, the House authorized broadcast coverage of floor debate. Though impeachment never came to fruition, the networks telecast hours of the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment probe.
March 2, 1977 Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O'Neill announced a 90-day live closed-circuit test of televised floor proceedings. The test began on March 15, 1977 and ended six months later on September 15.
Oct. 1977 Representative Lionel Van Deerlin of California, formerly a radio and television news analyst, spoke on the House Floor in favor of live television coverage of proceedings. Representative Charlie Rose of North Carolina, a Member of the House Administration Committee, was another driving force behind floor coverage. H. Res. 866, authorizing broadcast coverage of the House in session, passed by a vote of 342 to 44 on October 27, 1977.
June 14, 1978 The House voted to fund the purchase of television cameras. The six cameras and the television studio in the basement of the Capitol cost an estimated $1.2 million.
March 19, 1979 The House inaugurated the first live televised proceedings of the House Floor. Both Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and C-SPAN pick up the House feed and broadcast the House proceedings to the public. The first Member to speak before the television cameras was Representative Albert Gore, Jr., of Tennessee. “It is a solution for the lack of confidence in government,” Congressman Gore said, alluding to the public's post-Watergate mood. “The marriage of this medium and of our open debate have the potential, Mr. Speaker, to revitalize representative democracy.” The session lasted for two hours and 20 minutes and featured a debate over a measure to overhaul House committee structure, which included Representatives Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey, Richard Bolling of Missouri, Abner Mikva of Illinois, and Thomas Foley of Washington. Live broadcasts of Senate Floor proceedings began in 1986.
Jan. 20, 2004 President George W. Bush gave the first high-definition broadcast of the State of the Union Address.