Karen touched on this earlier, but the ratings for the Democrats’ convention so far have been less than spectacular. (And that’s putting it charitably at best.) After two nights of what’s traditionally been a gala full of packed galleries and enough balloons to choke half of the remaining Right whales to death once they reach the ocean, we have instead been treated to a series of video chats and lonely speakers that look like they came from the set of some post-apocalypse movie. The cable news networks haven’t even seemed to be able to muster much fake enthusiasm for the spectacle, spending more time on their own analysts’ hot takes than the speakers themselves. That’s been reflected in the number of people bothering to tune in and stick around for the full show. As the AP reports today, viewership is down across the board.
Preliminary estimates show that viewership for the first night of the Democrats’ virtual convention was down compared with the opening of Hillary Clinton’s nominating party four years ago.
An estimated 18.7 million people watched coverage between 10 and 11 p.m. on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, the Nielsen company said. Four years ago, opening night drew just under 26 million viewers.
Nielsen’s preliminary numbers did not include streaming or networks like PBS and CSPAN; a more comprehensive estimate is due later Tuesday.
Deadline put the numbers in similarly dismal territory, forecasting a drop of 25% for total viewers as compared to the opening of Hillary Clinton’s big show four years ago.
But why? The obvious and easy answer is to blame it on the pandemic. That’s precisely what CNN’s Anderson Cooper did, proclaiming, “The coronavirus changes the way we do everything.”
Is that really true, though? Obviously, the physical convention itself was altered drastically by the pandemic. Restrictions on large gatherings and the unwillingness of many people to board a plane or join in with crowds of people meant that the packed conventional halls of the past simply weren’t going to be an option this year. But we’re talking about the television ratings here.
The Democrats figured out how to conduct the entire affair using remote broadcasting technology. They still had a full slate of speakers and the usual counting of the delegates and all the rest. So most of the same content was going to be available. On top of that, with fewer people traveling (or even leaving home in many cases) there should be more people available in their living rooms to tune in, shouldn’t there? If anything, the pandemic presented an opportunity for the convention to draw more viewers in much the same way that Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO Max have enjoyed higher viewership during the lockdowns.
Taken in that light, this dip in viewership must be attributable to something else. While pondering the question this morning, two things came to mind as possibilities. One of them is still related to the COVID-19 situation but in a different way. Many of the features of the convention have been taking place on multiple/split screens with various speakers taking turns. They look for all the world like a Zoom conference call. At the same time, many of the people fortunate enough to still be working during this plague are doing so remotely. They spend much of their day sitting in on these video conference calls. Do they really want to tune in to CNN after they finish their work and sit through another one?
The other factor is one that’s been showing up in the polls all summer. The excitement level and enthusiasm among Democrats for a Joe Biden candidacy is simply not there. Trump’s supporters largely remain in a state of either excitement or distress, but the supporters of Biden and Bernie Sanders seem to run the gamut between resignation and resentment. That’s not the type of atmosphere that has people flocking to their television screens to experience the thrill of the moment.
Perhaps things will still pick up for the Democrats, however. Biden is supposed to give his formal acceptance speech tomorrow night. I assume he’ll be carefully propped up with a teleprompter, flashcards and someone ready to pull the plug if his mind suddenly swerves to starboard, but it should at least be entertaining.