If recent history and his Twitter feed are any indication, President Trump may respond to his latest ratings stumble with the all-purpose invective "Fake News!" But the fact of the matter remains: As with the turnout for his inauguration, the Donald can't seem to muster the big TV crowds his predecessor commanded.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the president's 9 p.m. EDT address to the nation on Monday averaged some 27.7 million viewers across the top broadcast and cable news networks, 32% fewer than the 40.8 million viewers who tuned in for President Obama's analogous Afghanistan speech in December 2009.
Trump's final numbers may inch upwards by a few million viewers once deliveries from smaller networks are tossed into the final mix.
On an individual network basis, NBC led all comers with an average draw of 6.18 million viewers, topping Fox News Channel by some 1.1 million viewers. ABC was third (4.72 million viewers), followed by CBS (4.14 million), MSNBC (2.69 million), CNN (2.39 million) and Fox broadcasting (2.46 million).
The turnout for Monday night's half-hour speech -- designed as an update on the U.S. military's strategy in Afghanistan and another do-over for the president, who a week ago seemed unwilling to condemn the actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville -- was relatively modest. It also lagged Obama's Sept. 9, 2009, health care address. Per Nielsen, that particular speech averaged 32.1 million viewers across 10 networks, which marked a 16% advantage over Trump's Afghanistan address.
Because presidential speeches are presented without commercial interruptions, the ratings aren't tremendously important to the participating TV networks, although the higher the deliveries, the more likely viewers may stick around during the analysis after the fact. Those segments generally do carry a standard commercial load.
Of course, the one person who cares deeply about the Nielsen ratings is the president, who has been fixated on TV metrics since his competition series "The Apprentice" first bowed on NBC in January 2004. The first season of the show, which Trump hosted and executive-produced, was a ratings sensation, averaging 20.7 million viewers and a 10.1 rating in NBC's target demo, which works out to around 13 million adults 18 to 49.
"The Apprentice" quickly lost steam, however, and by the fourth season, the show was averaging half as many viewers in the demo. And while the final season with Trump issuing his "you're fired" catch phrase averaged just 2.3 million advertiser-coveted viewers per episode, the future POTUS continued to hype the show to the press like it was on an even keel with "Sunday Night Football."
Two years ago at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, reporters snickered after Trump crowed that "The Apprentice" was "the No. 1 show on television." It wasn't even the top-rated show on Monday nights; per Nielsen, the series closed out that particular season ranked 35th among all broadcast TV programs.
That Trump often seems eager to make claims that are easily contradicted by reality is truly puzzling -- fibbing about ratings in a room full of TV reporters is at best a doomed and pyrrhic gesture -- and anyone who paid attention to his surreal back-and-forth with White House correspondents about the size of the crowd at his inauguration knows that the president has a somewhat slippery relationship with empirical facts.
Thus far, the president has yet to comment on his ratings performance, but should he get an inkling to take to Twitter after tonight's rally in Phoenix, there are a few viable explanations available to him. For one thing, the address was announced just a day before it was set to air, giving news outlets relatively little time to publicize the event. Moreover, Afghanistan of late hasn't exactly been a front-page story. Entering its sixteenth year, the war is the longest-lasting armed conflict in American history.
Then again, the president's toxic 35% approval rating (per Gallup's latest polling) could very well have something to do with the size of his TV audience.