Welcome to Politics4K

As much as we like to think that we vote on substance – not style – studies have shown that physical appearance matters to voters. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

While much of the 2014 midterm election analysis centered on the Republican takeover of the Senate, the pundits may have overlooked an important development: the end of a time when politicians looked a little less lifelike, even to viewers in HD.

Thanks to bigger and better processors inside journalists’ cameras, and, especially, a fourfold increase in resolution on viewers’ digital displays, the next era in political campaigning – let’s call it “Politics4K” – has arrived.

Earlier this fall, New York Times technology columnist Molly Wood explained 4K:

From a technical perspective, the term 4K refers to displays with twice the vertical resolution and twice the horizontal resolution of high-definition TVs. The UHD designation combines the higher pixel count of 4K with improvements to on-screen colors that make the on-screen picture brighter and more realistic.

So by the 2016 presidential election, voters will be able to screen their candidates in unprecedented clarity and color. With nothing less than the White House in the balance, campaigns of all political stripes now need to rethink their campaign optics – or watch their rivals come shining through.

A milestone moment in campaign optics

Presidential campaign adviser William P. Wilson – who died last week – may have been the first to understand the importance of campaign optics; according to his obituary:

In 1960 little was understood about the potential reach of television in American politics. Still, though he was just 32 at the time, Mr. Wilson was as experienced with the medium as anyone in the field. He already had the distinction of being the first television consultant ever hired by a presidential campaign.

In his classic 1979 media study “The Powers That Be,” David Halberstam explains how Wilson – minutes before Senator John F. Kennedy’s first debate against sitting Vice President Richard M. Nixon – convinced a reluctant Kennedy that his face needed some touching-up.

…Wilson insisted he needed some kind of makeup, mostly to close the pores and keep the shine down, and Kennedy asked if Wilson could do it, and Wilson, who knew the neighborhood, ran two blocks to a pharmacy, bought Max Factor Creme Puff, and made Kennedy up very lightly… On such decisions – Max Factor Creme Puff instead of Shavestick – rode the future leadership of the United States and the free world.

The Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 launched presidential politics into the television age; the medium became a game-changer, even though network broadcasts were black and white, analog and low-resolution by contemporary standards.

The first televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 was a milestone moment in campaign optics.

Image control key for pols

As the 20th century progressed, camera and television technology improved significantly – and become increasingly unforgiving.

Trust me: as a documentary filmmaker who has worked on a number of political films, I’ve come to realize that nothing correlates with campaign control more than optics.

The staff of former President Gerald Ford expressed displeasure with the close-up I framed up before a two-camera interview in his library studio. After we wrapped, his staff apologized; somehow, the videotape of his preferred wide-shot (think “White House Briefing”) had been perfectly recorded, but my tight-shot (think “60 Minutes”) suffered “technical difficulties” throughout.

In the middle of another interview – this one with a sitting Vice-President Al Gore – a staffer looking over my shoulder sucker-punched me when I quietly asked my cinematographer to “push in” for an extreme close-up.

Nothing like a shot to the kidney to prove how politics remains a perpetual exercise in control.

During the final year of the Clinton Administration, High-Definition television was in its infancy. After the White House granted me the first access to the Oval Office by a documentary filmmaker since the Kennedy administration, I was awarded a grant to produce my project in HD.

When I showed President Clinton’s special assistant some of our footage on (what was then) Washington’s only HD display, her jaw dropped: never before had she seen her boss depicted so vividly on screen.

In that instant we both realized the game had changed again; politicians would appear even more life-like on television.

Fifteen years later – as the prospects for another Clinton White House loom – another digital technology has reached new heights.

Optics influences outcomes

As of October 2014, the market penetration of Ultra HD television was only 7% of American homes. But due to steadily dropping prices for 4K displays – along with the availability of more 4K media – that number is expected to grow exponentially by the next presidential election.

Following Netflix’ lead, Amazon Prime commenced streaming 4K media in December. Election Night 2016 broadcast coverage in 4K should be a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, reasonably-priced 4K camcorders are already available to the reporters who will be embedded inside the 2016 primary campaigns.

While in the past, journalists wielding bulky cameras may have been able to be corralled, the proliferation of these camcorders will make it impossible for aides to shield their candidates from unflattering, high-resolution shots.

There’s a reason why this makes political operatives anxious. Study after study has shown that to voters, the candidates’ looks matter – in many cases, more than their party affiliation or policy stances.

In the world of politics, optics reign.

So while the next set of presidential candidates can run, they can’t hide from revealing 4K coverage – under all kinds of conditions, indoors and out, many less-than-flattering.

The likeliest prediction is that the Politics4K era will usher in plenty of unintended political consequences. With an electorate getting younger and more tech-savvy every year, how will politicians manage to maintain a youthful, energetic image?

Will the adage “the camera adds 10 pounds” become “the UltraHD camera adds 20 years” for certain candidates?

And will Politics4K become the great equalizer – or will age, gender and racial differences emerge in sharper contrast?

Too bad William P. Wilson didn’t live to see the day that UltraHD politics could be practiced in earnest. My guess is he’d already be working with the younger, more telegenic candidate, just as he did in 1960.