32.1 Million Watch President Obama Try to Resuscitate Health-Care Plan

Rash Report: Audience Up 30% from Most Recent Presidential Press Conference

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Barack Obama sits down on Jay Leno's couch after the talk show host's stand-up routine. Katie Couric and Tina Fey do more damage to Sarah Palin than the vice presidential debate. And just yesterday, Mark Foley announces that after scandalous text messages cut his congressional career short, he's trying his hand at another media form, talk radio.

Barack Obama's health care speech last night drew 32.1 million viewers.
Barack Obama's health care speech last night drew 32.1 million viewers. Credit: Pete Souza
And those are just a few examples explaining why the corner of media and politics has been such a busy intersection. Last night was just the latest example, as the president presided over prime time for the first hour, as he tried to resuscitate his health-care initiative with an address to Congress.

While reviews of the speech seem to fall along reviewers' relative political positions, the electricity in the Capitol didn't necessarily translate into alacrity outside the Beltway. Sure, more than 32.1 million watched the address to Congress, but that was about 61% of the 52.3 million who watched Obama's first congressional address, which for a rookie president is the first-year version of a State of the Union Address.

And yet it was nearly 30% more than the 24.7 million who watched his most recent prime-time presidential press conference -- which was also about health care -- and 11 % more than his presidential press event after his first 100 days. But it's far less than the 40.3 million on March 24 and the 49.4 million on Feb. 9 who heard the president press for his economic recovery plan.

Perhaps most important -- and poignantly, regardless of what public policy prescription is preferred -- is that the 32.1 million who watched last night pales in comparison to another number released today: 46.3 million, the new number of Americans who are uninsured.

The address was carried on 11 national networks, which is one of the reasons why both Fox and the CW felt free to take the off-ramp from politics and media and instead opt for shows that people watch to escape the weary Washington debate. And while it may not have been the best civics, it was perhaps the best business, as both networks had good nights with program premieres.

Rash grids

See how all the shows did in the ratings.
For Fox, which finished first with an overall 3.1/9 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, there's probably some giddiness about "Glee," which had its first fall episode since its post penultimate "American Idol" program premiere last May. Despite a much lower-rated lead-in than "Idol" -- the fall season premiere of "So You Think You Can Dance" (2.7/8, which was about 79% of its summer season premiere in May and 90% of its full summer average) -- "Glee" delivered a 3.5/9, which not only was 30% higher than "Dance," but 90% of its post-"Idol" pilot.

As for the CW, many chose the two-hour season premiere of "America's Next Top Model" instead of the American president. But the 1.5/4 was 83% of last spring's premiere and 88% of fall's first episode last year.

While this places the CW fourth for the night, that's based on truncated ratings for NBC (1.8/5), ABC (1.6/4) and CBS (1.4/4), as Nielsen does not include "non-commercial" broadcasts like Obama's address.

Of course, unlike Obama's make-or-break speech, one episode does not a season make. So subsequent weeks will show if the slightly lower levels for "Dance" and "Model" were because of, or despite of, the real reality show taking place on the ultimate TV set, the nation's capitol.

Thursday: Sixty minutes of drama, at times punctuated by blood. The program premiere of "The Vampire Diaries" on the CW? Well, sure. But it's also the kick-off of the NFL season, with the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers taking on the Tennessee Titans on NBC.
Friday: Like newsmagazines? There's new episodes of NBC's "Dateline" and ABC's "20/20." Like news? Watch the weekly wrap-up on PBS's "News Hour with Jim Lehrer."

While some weeks may be weaker due to local blackouts, tonight's game under the lights in Pittsburgh should score big for NBC and the NFL.

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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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