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Answer: Televising General Conference

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 03, 2012

Most sources give credit to the sessions of October 1949 as the first televised General Conference. It’s true that that Conference was the first to be broadcast at large, to the tiny number of homes and businesses within range that were equipped with television sets that early. There’s a great photograph in the Church News of 9 October 1949 showing the patients at Primary Children’s Hospital – then directly across the street from Temple Square, on the present site of the Conference Center, gathered with their beds and wheelchairs around the Hospital’s new television, all focused on and fascinated by the images with an intensity that children probably haven’t focused on General Conference since then.

However, April conference of 1948 is actually the first time television technology was used to broadcast General Conference. Directed by KSL Radio, and supervised by Vincent Clayton, chief engineer of KSL’s infant television industry, eight television monitors (all very small screens) were installed in the Assembly Hall where overflow seating was available; a ninth monitor was installed in the small Bureau of Information building (precursor to the visitors’ centers).


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Although a relatively small portion of the overflow crowd (some 3,000 at each of the six public sessions – Conference was held over three days in that era) was able to witness Conference in this way, the technology did broaden the visual enjoyment of Conference beyond the interior of the Tabernacle for the first time. Too, this was the first time that many in the audience had ever seen the new technology in action.

The new equipment – two cameras (one long-range and the other short-range), the nine television sets, and other necessary apparatus – was purchased and owned by the Church, not KSL. A spokesman said “the television equipment would undoubtedly be kept in use during the year,” but admitted that “the purposes for which it will be used have not yet been determined.”

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Photographs: Inside the Assembly Hall on Temple Square; Cameraman – or, as his title then was, “transmitting technician” – Ben Burdett of KSL, at work inside the Tabernacle.



16 Comments »

  1. So how common were television sets? Your writing makes them sound quite rare. My only other reference point is that my grandfather had the only television set it Appalachian Kentucky. His family moved there from more civilized areas; there was no TV service in their Kentucky town (also only one phone in the town and my great-grandfather had to wire their home for electricity). My grandpa hitch-hiked out in 1951/1952. My grandmother grew up near Chicago and had television. She talks about Kentucky as if it were a third-world country.

    Comment by HokieKate — August 3, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  2. I don’t have numbers, but they *were* very rare at this point. At least in the Salt Lake area, the first public broadcasts that you could have picked up at home only began in June 1949 — until then it was nothing but test patterns. There was no point in buying a TV if there was literally nothing to watch. But once broadcasting did get underway, even if stations broadcast only a few hours a day, television sets multiplied rapidly, at least in cities with broadcasters — as you note, it took longer for service to reach more distant points, if reception required additional equipment, or translator stations, or whatever.

    Limited as it was, this 1948 experiment was pioneering.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 3, 2012 @ 11:10 am

  3. In about 1950 my dad had a radio repair shop in Idaho. A new television station said they would start broadcasting on a certain date, so he stocked his shop with dozens of TV sets. Then the broadcast date was delayed for months. He almost went out of business because he had spent all his money on the TVs. Then, suddenly the station started broadcasting and that day they sold every one. It expanded his business to TV repair also.

    I’ve wondered if there were more TVs there because this was in Rigby where TV was invented.

    Comment by Carol — August 3, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  4. 3-day conferences? When did that change? And what was covered in the other two session? Were they just general sessions, or were they themed leadership sessions, like for welfare, Relief society, etc.? I suspect the MIA conferences were still held separately in June?

    Life before correlation seems so confusing. Hmmm… maybe that’s why it was corrolated :-)

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 3, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  5. Re #2, TV Basics, the “trade association of America’s broadcast television industry” provides the following statistics on television market penetration:

    1950-9.0% (of American homes had TV’s)
    1955-64.5%
    1960-87.1%
    1965-92.6%

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 3, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

  6. The picture of the “transmitting technician” above in his suit and tie reminds me of an uncorrelated television shot from the 70′s or 80′s. In the old Tabernacle, to get the head on shot of the speakers at the podium, there was a TV camera mounted on a hydraulic lift, right in the middle of the Tabernacle. The cameraman would lower himself down out of sight during long shots of the audience and songs and also had to sit very still while the talks were being given so as not to jiggle the camera image. During one session, I recall that they cut to a long shot and managed to catch the cameraman, dressed in T-shirt and jeans, sitting on the extended lift with his camera pointed at the podium.

    Comment by kevinf — August 3, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

  7. Do I remember right that when conference was for three days, one day of the April conference was on April 6, no matter what day of the week, and the other days were Saturday and Sunday?

    Comment by Carol — August 3, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  8. April 1977 was the first two-day conference. And yes, Carol, April Conference did always include April 6, even if the 6th was a Tuesday or Wednesday, so that there was a gap between the sessions held on the weekend and the April 6th session.

    Not that the time was wasted when there was a blank day in the middle of the Conference schedule — those were also the days when the auxiliaries held their own conferences and workshops, so there was always a lot going on.

    Thanks, TOClark and kevinf for the added historical perspective, and the laugh.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 3, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

  9. There was a welfare session for a while–on Saturday at 7:00 a.m.

    And don’t forget, Ardis: at least once in the early 1960s the national convention of the John Birch Society was held in SLC and there was some controversy about whether Elder Benson would address it on the “off” day between April 6 and the rest of the conference. I tried to hunt down something about that with my friend Google, but failed.

    Speaking of that camera on the hydraulic lift: a friend and I attended conference together for a couple of years in the late 1980s. It seemed that every session we’d end up in the back, under the balcony, right behind one of the pillars. In hopes of getting a better view one afternoon session, we got in line early, filed into the tabernacle, and sat down right near the center aisle, with a great view of the pulpit. A great view, that is, until just before the meeting started, when the cameraman came in, sat in the seat on the hydraulic lift and rose up into the air–blocking our view yet again.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 3, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

  10. There was a wide shot of conference with the hydraulic lift extended in one of the Church magazines (probably the Ensign, but I don’t remember for sure) in the early- to mid-80s.

    Comment by lindberg — August 3, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

  11. Mark, the John Birch story is in the David O. McKay bio by Prince & Wright. But just because I read it doesn’t mean I can remember the date, either.

    Comment by kevinf — August 3, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

  12. I could have sworn that there used to be four and five days of conference in the early 20th century, but I’ll have to do some digging to verify if I am completely missremembering things.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2012 @ 8:22 am

  13. If this question had come up yesterday, J., I could have easily researched it by flipping through the Conference Reports on the shelf. Rather than digging through your files, why don’t you wait until Monday and I’ll report what I find there.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 4, 2012 @ 8:50 am

  14. J., I flipped through several Conference Reports from the early part of the century, and conferences all seem to be three days, both April and October. Perhaps your reference was to General Conference combined with some auxiliary conference or other special event?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 6, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

  15. The February 1981 Ensign has a useful listing of general conference dates and locations through 1980. I do see an occasional conferences that goes 1, 2, 4, or even 5 days in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, but 3 days seems pretty standard until the recent change to two. The October 1880 conference for example, lasted five days. The last one-day conference was November 10, 1901. Apparently, a special November conference was held for the sustaining of J. F. Smith. as president of the church.

    When I moved to Utah at age 13, I was startled to learn that conference actually lasted three days. Before that, I only saw one session carried as public service time on the local TV channel. I thought that one session was all there was to conference.

    Comment by Left Field — August 6, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

  16. Thanks, Left Field, that’s very useful.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 6, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

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