On Tuesday President Barack Obama will deliver his seventh State of the Union Address, this one likely reaching the smallest television audience ever – another marker in an entirely unsurprising continuation of a long-term trend.
There are a few truths in the numbers around State of the Union Addresses. First, barring major news events happening at the time, viewership for the speech tends to decline over the course of an administration. And second, the larger trend for the ratings overall is down – and don’t expect that to change.
Over the course of his administration, President Bill Clinton got one real bump in ratings for his address – that came in 1998 after news of the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky had just broken. For President George W. Bush there were two bumps – in 2002, the first State of the Union after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and in 2003, as the country was preparing for war with Iraq.
You can see those numbers in this piece from the Wall Street Journal.
This is not exactly a surprise, when you think about it. When you get past the first few years of an administration – and certainly when you get into a second term – how much can a president say that’s new or interesting?
And when you consider the saturation of coverage around the speech even if you don’t watch it, how likely are you to miss the major points? Consider all the ways you get news – not only through print, TV and radio, but also through your computer, phone, tablet, social media.
When you think about all those outlets and opportunities, if you really want the gist of what the president says Tuesday night are you better off watching the speech or reading the barrage of coverage that will follow it? The answer to that question isn’t necessarily clear.
That’s just a few reasons why people are less likely to tune in and there is a range of data points explaining why the ratings will likely continue to fall.
- Between 2008 and 2013, Nielsen reports that the average numbers of channels receivable per TV household went from 129 to 189. That’s a remarkable increase in the possible places for eyeballs to go.
- Streaming services give viewers even more places to go. Netflix, which began to allow users to stream programming over their TVs in 2007, estimates users stream more than 1 billion hours of programming each month.
- And, on the whole, people are watching less live TV. Since 2012, Nielsen reports the hours of live TV the average American watches every month has declined by nearly three hours.
In that environment, the seventh State of the Union Address by a sitting president in a time of relative peace and a slow economic growth is not likely to draw many viewers.
The White House is, of course, aware of these challenges. And they have a variety of ways to try to reach beyond simple live TV to push the president’s message through other media. The White House will, of course, be tweeting during the speech and, trying something new this year, in the days that follow Mr. Obama will be sitting down with three video bloggers on YouTube in a live event on Thursday.
Think of it as a way to stretch the evening’s message out past the actual speech. Mr. Obama has been travelling before the speech to stretch the evening’s impact out that way as well. The goal, in some ways, is to rebuild the power of an event that doesn’t carry the punch it once did.
Mr. Obama does have a few points potentially in his favor when he takes to the podium Tuesday night if he is looking for a bigger audience. The National Basketball Association has an extremely light schedule – only two games. And there are no big, top-25 college basketball clashes set. But his message may not reach as far in Pennsylvania, where National Hockey League’s Pittsburg Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will be playing each other.
Even with that light competition, however, expect the ratings to be down – and get ready to read that headline a lot in the days after State of the Union speeches in the years ahead.
When you get through the reasons to watch and the other options available to the audience, the ratings for the State of the Union likely have nowhere else to go.