The Fox News Channel was the big winner in the live television coverage of President Trump’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday – adding weight to its claim of being the most popular source for television news in the United States. Twelve channels – five on them on broadcast TV networks and the rest on cable – ran the speech. Fox News beat all of them by a very wide margin. When the final audience numbers came in, Fox News had the highest ratings in the history of cable television for a broadcast speech.
As it has done since the dawn of television broadcasting in the 1950s, Nielsen Research tabulated the ratings. During the speech itself, 9-10:30 P.M. E.S.T., a total of 11.5 million viewers were watching Fox News. The competition on the other major cable news channels, CNN and MSNBC, had only 3.1 million and 2.7 million total viewers, respectively. In the preferred demographic (viewers between the ages of 25-54), Fox News had 3.3 million vs. 1.3 million for CNN and only 659,000 for MSNBC. Fox News also comfortably won the ratings against its cable news channel competitors for the rest of the night in prime, and pre- and post-prime, time.
The real story was Fox News’s triumph over the nation’s broadcast channels, as well, by 4.4 million viewers over its closest competitor, NBC. The NBC television network led the broadcast channels with 7.1 million total viewers, followed closely by CBS with 7 million, and with ABC (5.4 million) picking up the rear. The Spanish language channels in the U.S., Univision and Telemundo, had 2 million and 1.4 million viewers respectively, with Univision only 700K behind MSNBC.
The content of the coverage was worlds apart, depending on the channel one chose to watch. Compared to its competition, Fox News largely lived up to its historical “fair and balanced” motto, with its hosts and guests alternately praising and criticizing Trump in approximately equal numbers. CNN, meanwhile, typified most of the other channels with Van Jones, the host of a new weekly Saturday evening program on CNN, commenting in a clip that went viral that “Trump was ‘selling sweet-tasting candy with poison in it.’” MSNBC kept reminding its viewers that Trump “is under criminal investigation right now for obstruction of justice with regard to the Russia investigation.” CNN and MSNBC maintained what appeared to be their typical 9:1 negative to positive ratio of coverage of President Trump throughout the evening coverage of the SOTU and into early Wednesday morning E.S.T.
All of the cable and broadcast channels covered the official Democratic Party response that followed the POTUS’ 80 minute speech, this year delivered by fresh-faced 37 year old Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy, III (the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy), who spoke to an enthusiastic group of students at a technical school in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Late night ABC TV host Jimmy Kimmel, who has emerged recently as a leading pop culture icon in the opposition to President Trump, had as his featured guest on Tuesday night’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! the porn actress known as Stormy Daniels. The Wall Street Journal and In Touch magazine have recently alleged in articles that Trump had a sexual encounter with Daniels in 2006 and that she was paid $130,000 in 2016 by Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen to keep her mouth shut. (The White House and Trump’s attorney, as well as Daniels, have all denied these accusations.) The MSM reported widely and in detail about Daniels’ appearance on the Kimmel program, during which, as a story at CBS News described it, she “did not answer any questions about the alleged affair.”
Citing recent history, the MSM was quick to point out that the television audience for President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address, in January 2010, exceeded President Trump’s Tuesday night. A typical MSM headline was Variety’s story, “Trump’s First State of the Union Fails to Match Obama in Viewership.” While that may be true, the actual numbers show that 48 million viewers watched Obama in 2010 vs. 45.6 million for Trump – only about 5% fewer viewers for Trump. After 2011, the number of Obama’s SOTU viewers fell to the low to mid-30s in millions for the rest of his term.
According to a chart of ratings for historical State of the Union addresses at nielsen.com, the record number of viewers for recent SOTU addresses rests with George W. Bush, whose January 28, 2003 speech as the Iraq war appeared imminent was watched by 62 million Americans. The second place winner appears to be Bill Clinton, who attracted 53 million television viewers on January 27, 1998 as the red hot scandal involving his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky that would lead to his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate in 1999 was just breaking.
It is not known how many people – in addition to those watching on television – live streamed the video and audio of the 2018 State of the Union address on the Internet. WhiteHouse.gov and a number of networks, stations, and online sources provided the streams but as yet there is no reliable way to measure the online audience for a live event.
Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran reporter and analyst of news on national politics, media, and popular culture. In addition to his writing, Peter has appeared as a guest commentator on NBC, PBS, the CBC, and, on January 4, 2018, the BBC. For announcements and links to a wide selection of Peter’s published work, follow him on Twitter at @pchowka.