What Do TV Ratings for Speeches Mean?

Last week it was reported that Barack Obama’s acceptance speech was the most-watched convention speech ever, with 38.4 million viewers. Then, six days later, the Republican vice presidential nominee came within an inch of his record total. And then Nielsen reported that John McCain’s speech edged out Obama’s, making him the most-watched presidential nominee ever.

But there’s a footnote to this victory. Nielsen rates the audiences on commercial networks. But PBS says that 3.5 million people watched its broadcast of Obama’s speech, while only 2.7 million watched McCain on PBS. Why? Need you ask? PBS is a government-funded network for liberals. More people watched McCain on the conservative Fox News Channel, more people watched Obama on the liberal PBS. So if you add in the PBS figures, Obama probably has a very slight edge in total viewers. (Nielsen also doesn’t rate C-SPAN, which doesn’t release viewing figures.)

But does any of this matter? Dudley Clendinen reported in the New York Times [$] on August 26, 1984, that more people watched Walter Mondale’s acceptance speech than President Reagan’s. Reagan went on to win the election by 59 to 41 percent. And Jesse Jackson’s convention speech drew more viewers than either Reagan or Mondale.

And that wasn’t the only time, Clendinen reported: “Mr. Humphrey outdrew Mr. Nixon on television [in 1968], but not in the polls. The same thing happened with Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter [in 1976]. And it happened again four years ago, when President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan.”

So enjoy your Nielsen victory, Republicans. But don’t assume that a victory at the boob tube presages a victory a the ballot box.

(Footnote: I wondered if today’s candidates were really drawing more viewers than earlier nominees, in the days of three networks and no cable competition. As far as I can tell, yes they are. Reagan and Mondale in 1984 drew 19 million viewers each. Cable was already taking big bites out of the networks by then. Nielsen says that 35 million watched Jimmy Carter’s speech in 1976. He got a much larger percentage of a smaller population.)