President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was watched by much, but not all, of the nation on Tuesday night, as the leader of the free world competed with the Westminster dog show and reality TV for attention.
Westminster Dog Show. Source: Alison Young
The president announced the withdrawal of some troops from Afghanistan, chided Republicans for the fiscal cliff, and made some other political points.
But in the all-important political battle of messaging, a good part of America opted to watch Fifi the Doberman take on Matisse the Portuguese Water Dog, or the frenetic parents of Dance Moms instead.
Nielsen keeps ratings of presidential State of the Union addresses back to the start of the Clinton presidency. And for President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush, there was a significant drop in viewers at the start of their second term.
For President Obama, the State of the Union address has seen declining viewership since 2009, his first year in office.
The 2012 address drew a Nielsen rating of only 24.0, meaning that 24 percent of all possible households with TVs were watching the event.
That was the second-lowest audience for a State of the Union address since 1993. The only speech with a lower rating was President Clinton’s final State of the Union address in 2000.
Clinton also had the most-watched speech in the past 20 years, with 44 million households tuned into his first State of the Union in 1993.
Last year, 14 networks showed the State of the Union live on television, and 38 percent of people who actually had a TV on for that two-hour period watched part of the speech.
So in other words, 62 percent of viewers who were in front of a TV ignored the Obama speech.
The most-watched live TV appearance by President Obama was his dramatic announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death, which was seen by 56 million people despite the president’s appearance late on a Sunday night.
In 2006, researchers Matthew Baum and Samuel Kernell looked at older Nielsen data and approximated how recent presidents compared with leaders like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan when it came to live TV appearances.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, when more homes in America had televisions than had indoor plumbing and virtually all viewers (including early cable subscribers) depended on the networks for their programming, presidents possessed an enviable tool of persuasion,” said Baum and Kernell.
Until the Reagan era, between 45 and 50 percent of all Americans watched a president when he made a live television appearance, including a press conference or a State Of The Union address.
In 1985, as cable TV subscribers started to outnumber people who only had access to broadcast television, the dynamics of presidential TV watching changed.
Viewership for President Clinton and President Bush dropped to between 25 percent and 30 percent for their live events.
It seems unlikely that President Obama will improve on his 24 percent rating from last year. The president was also running for re-election at that point when he gave the January 24 speech.
Last year, Fox News led all cable channels with 3.8 million viewers for the State of the Union. The cable shows Storage Wars and Teen Mom 2 outdrew the president on Fox News.
In comparison, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show drew 3.1 million viewers when it aired in February 2012 on USA Network, against a much-stronger lineup of prime-time broadcast and cable shows.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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