I mean, he still beat the Oscars. But (a) presidential speeches routinely crush the Oscars since they air across multiple networks and (b) beating the Oscars is no longer any kind of achievement. Ho-hum NFL games drew bigger TV audiences last year than the Academy Awards did this year.
We’re all used to seeing live events pull shockingly poor ratings in the pandemic era but this comparison — which is misleading — almost knocked me off my chair.
Biden's ratings just a fraction of Trump's.
37.2M – Trump 2020
46.8M – Trump 2019
46M – Trump 2018
48M – Trump 2017
11.6M – Biden 2021
— John Ashbrook (@JohnAshbrook) April 29, 2021
Biden was off 75 percent from Trump’s first address to Congress? Well … no. Ashbrook neglected to mention that the 11.6 million figure represents what Biden drew across the four broadcast networks whereas Trump’s 48 million total includes all networks, including cable. (The cable numbers for Biden will be in later.) It’s apples to oranges. But there are apples-to-apple comparisons we can draw based on the preliminary data and see that Biden’s going to end up grossly underperforming Trump anyway.
In unadjusted fast affiliate data, the President’s speech drew around 11.6 million viewers in the 9 PM ET hour. Add, Univision (1.08 million) and Telemundo (884,000) to that batch of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox and the result inches up to 13.5 million for the speech that started around 9:10 PM ET…
What we can also tell you at this point, when everything from the Super Bowl to the Oscars are seeing new lows, is that Biden’s first address to a sparse Congress was one of the least watched in recent history…
To Thursday throwback to the last POTUS, the current POTUS’ talk was down about 49% from a newly installed Trump’s first speech to a packed House chamber back on April 30, 2017.
The apples-to-apples comparison can be made by looking back to what Trump drew among the broadcast networks only in 2017. Answer: 22.7 million. He ended up adding another 17.5 million viewers from the big three cable news channels, including a blowout figure of 10.8 million on Fox News alone. Biden’s not going to end up drawing anything like that. Which means it’s quite possible that he’ll finish short of … 30 million viewers.
Why the drop-off? There’s the pandemic effect, for starters. People just aren’t watching as much live TV in the COVID era for whatever reason. There’s also a streaming effect, as every year seems to divert more TV viewers to online platforms to watch live broadcasts. We may yet learn that a higher percentage of viewers for Biden’s speech watched online than did so for Trump’s. Trump himself is also a more charismatic performer than Biden is, to put it mildly, which must have drawn a large cohort of curiosity-seekers who otherwise wouldn’t watch a speech for his 2017 address.
But one explanation for the disparity that shouldn’t be overlooked is that Americans elected Biden in part because they were tired of political drama. The Trump years were … eventful, and exhausting. By the end, enough voters were eager for a return to boring normalcy that they handed Biden the most votes any candidate in American history has received. Some people voted for him *because* they didn’t want to have to care anymore day to day about what the president was up to. So go figure that when he finally had a national audience for a big speech, many decided “no thanks” and tuned out. That was their Biden election divided, no longer feeling they had to pay attention for fear that the wheels might be coming off the executive branch at any moment.
Even so, Biden’s ratings fizzle will delight Trump, I’m sure. Maybe he’ll even tie it to his “stop the steal” program, wondering how Biden could have possibly received more votes in November if he couldn’t draw more viewers now. (Recall that Biden did outdraw Trump in viewers for their townhall events last October.) Expect a statement from Mar-a-Lago gloating about the president’s weak numbers after the cable news data is in.
Update: Not just short of 30 million viewers, well short.
NEW from Nielsen: "An estimated 26.9 million people tuned in to watch President Joe Biden’s first address to a Joint Session of Congress."
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) April 29, 2021