52 Million Tuned In to Watch Obama's First Address

Rash Report: Speech Draws 40% More Than Bush's Last State of the Union

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- With Americans concurrently hopeful about a new president and fearful about their futures, President Barack Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress was watched by more than 52 million people last night, an increase of nearly 40% over the 37.5 million for President George W. Bush's last State of the Union speech, in 2008.

President Obama's speech, which was carried on 10 national networks, was watched by even more people than the post-Sept. 11 State of the Union address.
President Obama's speech, which was carried on 10 national networks, was watched by even more people than the post-Sept. 11 State of the Union address. Credit: AP
The speech, which was carried on 10 national networks, was watched by even more people than the post-Sept. 11 State of the Union address, which was seen by 51.7 million on eight networks in 2002. But last night's audience was smaller than the recent record of 62 million who watched in 2003, just weeks before the invasion of Iraq.

In 2001, another new president, Mr. Bush, made his first address to a joint session of Congress. That speech drew a relatively low 39.8 million on seven networks. Bill Clinton, however, drew 66.9 million on four networks for his first address. At times he attracted similar interest, but not in the way he probably hoped: 53 million viewers watched him address the House and Senate on eight networks in 1998, before the former impeached him. A year later, 44.5 million tuned in to Mr. Clinton's speech on seven networks.

Final live-plus-same-day data for Mr. Obama's address are not yet available. But in the fast-affiliate ratings for the Big Four broadcast networks, NBC was elected by the most viewers in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic, with a 3.2/8 rating and share for the combined presidential address, the Republican response and network analysis. ABC was second, with a 2.4/6, followed by CBS, with a 2.2/6. Fox delivered a 1.8/5. (Presidential addresses are not sponsored events and are therefore monitored by Nielsen differently than regularly scheduled programming with ad breaks.)

Live-plus-same-day data are available, however, for the lead-ins and lead-outs to the presidential address. What's most remarkable isn't the ratings but that the networks once again have basically ceded coverage to cable networks. That repeats the scheduling strategy they had during last year's compelling campaign, which led to big cable-news-network gains.

NBC, for instance, ran "Biggest Loser: Couples" (3.7/10) as a lead-in and "The Office" (1.5/4) as a lead-out. CBS aired "NCIS" (3.9/11) and then a rerun of "Two and a Half Men" (1.7/5) as a lead-out.

ABC actually gave the two time slots to its news division, but opted for a news-reality format, with "Homeland Security" (1.9/5). After the speeches, it switched to the less relevant "Primetime: What Would You Do?" (1.7/5).

Fox, without a network-news division of its own, ran "Bones" (1.6/4). The CW did not carry the speech, opting instead for "Privileged" (a condition fewer and fewer feel nowadays), which drew a .7/2. That was also the network's overall average, as a lead-in rerun of "90210" summed a .6/2.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Wednesday: So you watched the president prescribe solutions on how to get out of this mess. How did we get into it? Watch "House of Cards," CNBC's compelling documentary about the bubble's burst.
Thursday:Then get away from all the scary stuff by watching "Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five," a half-hour riff on the theatrical running at 8 p.m. on NBC.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
The American president meant no "American Idol" on Fox Tuesday night, so fans will get their fix with Wednesday's two-hour version, which means Fox should dominate the ratings race.

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.

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