Trump's State of the Union confirmed dirty little media secret: He's a TV ratings loser
Think there isn't Trump fatigue?
Welcome to my new media newsletter. This is where my writing now appears exclusively, three times a week. If you’d like columns delivered straight to your inbox, please sign up below. If you’re already a subscriber, please support by sharing. Cheers.
For someone who's obsessed with television ratings and uses them to weigh his own worth, Trump must have been seething over the shrinking TV audience that tuned into this week’s State of the Union Address. Speaking to the nation amidst the final stages of the Senate impeachment trail, Trump attracted nearly 10 million fewer Americans as compared to his 2019 State of the Union speech.
To have your national audience plummet by almost 25 percent represented a major setback for Trump, who of course envisions himself as the Reality TV President. And that's how he staged the SOTU. "A tear-stained reunion of a military family, a snubbed handshake and an impromptu bestowing of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a guest star, the radio host Rush Limbaugh," as the New York Times noted. And a Reality TV President is also how the press has touted him for years, suggesting Trump is a pop culture phenomenon who instantly boosts ratings whenever he appears on television shows, and that Americans just can't get enough of his supposedly compelling antics.
And I guarantee you that that will be a key narrative as the 2020 presidential campaign unfolds: Trump is a master media communicator who dominates the media landscape, while his Democratic opponent struggles to keep up. Left out of that pro-Trump equation though, will be the looming possibility that most Americans are just tired of the Trump show and his relentless need for media attention. Trump's soggy SOTU performance certainly lends credence to that.
It clearly points to widespread fatigue among voters, which could prove troubling for him in an election year. For years, Trump has used ratings as a way to both validate himself and undercut his foes.
The truth is, Trump's ratings woes were on display long before impeachment began dominating headlines, but the press has mostly ignored that fact. Note that last summer, ABC News aired a Sunday night hour-long, prime-time special featuring Trump that turned out to be something of a ratings debacle. The interview special, which had no real news hook to it, came in third place among the three major networks on Sunday at 8 PM. Worse, the show produced just half the television audience that ABC's Celebrity Family Feud attracted in the same time slot one week earlier.
We’ve seen Trump deliver underwhelming ratings over and over. Two years ago, when he sat down for a 60 Minutes interview, he landed an audience one-half of the size that former adult-film actress Stormy Daniels landed when she was interviewed months earlier on the same show, where she detailed her sexual liaison with Trump and his campaign's efforts to buy her silence in 2016.
In 2018, Trump’s first official State of the Union address drew a smaller audience than those of his two presidential predecessors—Trump drew 40 million viewers, compared to the 48 million who tuned in to watch President Barack Obama's first State of the Union. (Bill Clinton's first SOTU attracted 46 million viewers.)
Additionally, when Trump taped the traditional pre-Super Bowl interview in 2017, the audience was 12 million viewers. In 2019 it was 8 million, and last Sunday, Trump's Super Bowl interviewed inched up to 10 million viewers. But when Obama sat for the Super Bowl interview in 2009, his first year in office, 22 million people watched, doubling Trump's audience. Even Obama’s Super Bowl interviews during his second term in office easily outpaced the audience size for Trump’s sit-down. Obama drew 18 million viewers in 2014, 16 million in 2015, and 15 million in 2016.
In early 2017, when Trump turned his announcement of a Supreme Court nominee into a prime-time production, 33 million people watched. By contrast, Obama’s first prime-time event of his presidency was a press conference held on the night of February 4, 2009, when nearly 50 million Americans watched.
Truth is, Obama was much more of a mass media phenomenon than Trump ever will be.
And of course there was the inauguration, which Trump obsessed over, sending his then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer out in front of the media to announce the event had set every conceivable record for attendance and viewership. In fact, across 12 television networks, 31 people watched Trump’s inauguration — 7 million fewer than watched Obama’s first inauguration.
It's really past time for the media to drop this idea that Trump is a wildly charismatic and captivating figure. There's simply no proof to support the idea that Americans hang on his every word. In fact, there's plenty of ratings data that suggests a large portion of the country has completely tuned Trump out.
Think about the hundreds of hours of impeachment coverage and discussion that aired surrounding the just-concluded Senate trial. And think about how odd it is that a late-night host, of all people, may have offered up the best, most straightforward description of today's radical GOP, and the cowardice that drives so much of the party: