It didn't exactly make for riveting political theater, but President Donald Trump's brief Tuesday night address on border security and the subsequent response from the two leading Democrats still managed to scare up around 40 million viewers.
Speaking to the nation from the Oval Office, the president's address clocked in at approximately nine-and-a-half minutes, whereupon House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued their joint rebuttal. While complete ratings for the broadcast networks were unavailable at press time, the Dems drew higher numbers than the president on cable news.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, approximately a half-million more viewers tuned in for the Pelosi-Schumer segment, as some 16.1 million people watched their response on Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC, up from the 15.6 million who were on hand for Trump's address.
Predictably, the Trump/Dems break hewed to partisan lines. Fox News deliveries declined from 8.22 million viewers during the presidential address to 7.86 million for the Pelosi-Schumer segment, a loss of 4 percent. CNN and MSNBC, meanwhile, saw their numbers go up during the half-hour, with CNN's audience growing 10 percent to 3.74 million viewers during the response interval, and MSNBC's expanding by 11 percent to 4.46 million viewers.
Over the relevant half-hour slot (9-9:30 p.m. EST), Fox News averaged 8.04 million viewers and 1.87 million adults age 25-to-54, while MSNBC placed second with 4.24 million viewers, of whom 811,000 were members of the core news demo. CNN took the bronze among total viewers with an average draw of 3.57 million viewers, but came in second with members of its target audience, drawing 1.39 million adults age 25-to-54.
On the broadcast front, NBC beat all comers in the demographic, averaging 2.75 million adults 25-to-54, which accounted for 37 percent of its overall deliveries (7.4 million). ABC's coverage of the speech and rebuttal averaged 5.46 million viewers, of whom 1.79 million were demographically relevant. Boasting the night's largest lead-in ("NCIS" notched 12.1 million viewers at 8 p.m.), CBS edged Fox News for the lion's share of total deliveries with 8.09 million viewers, of whom 1.71 million were in the demo, while the Fox broadcast network brought up the rear with 2.96 million viewers and 1.3 million adults age 25-to-54.
All told, the average draw for the seven linear TV outlets was 39.8 million viewers, shy of the 45.6 million viewers who watched last year's State of the Union Address, but well ahead of the 25.6 million who tuned in for Trump's July 9 announcement in which he introduced the nation to his new Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
The border address and the Pelosi-Schumer response likely will stand as the fourth most-watched broadcast of 2019, trailing only CBS's coverage of Super Bowl LIII and the NFC and AFC Championship Games.
Brevity went a long way toward securing those high ratings, as very little of what was presented to the American people on Tuesday night was new material. On the 18th day of the government shutdown precipitated by the battle over Trump's demand for a $5.7 billion border wall, the president tried to characterize his desire to halt illegal immigration as a humanitarian issue.
If the rhetoric was familiar, the presentation was jarringly off-key. But for a moment when he spoke direly of a hammer murder, the president last night remained uncharacteristically subdued throughout his brief address, and at times seemed to struggle to read his lines from the teleprompter.
Pelosi and Schumer fared little better, as the substance of their rebuttal was familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to the issue. The two Democrats were also stymied by peculiar production decisions; hemmed in side-by-side behind a narrow podium in the U.S. Capitol building, the two veteran politicians looked like a Grant Wood painting come to life, "American Gothic" wrapped up in the stars and stripes. Twitter, naturally, had a field day with both sides of the Beltway divide.
If the half-hour wasn't terribly compelling, nor was it particularly effective. The president this afternoon reportedly stormed out of a meeting with Pelosi and Schumer before turning to Twitter to announce that the sit-down had been a "total waste of time."
The tweet took an odd turn at the end, as these things often do. "I said bye-bye, nothing else works!" the president noted.