The final TV viewership numbers are in for President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and the broadcast hit a historic low in one of two key ratings categories.
Nielsen says the State of the Union was seen by 33.5 million people, which is the lowest number since 2000 and the second-lowest total since 1993, when the agency first started combined measuring for the event.
The combined rating for the 2013 speech was 21.5, which is the lowest in history. President Bill Clinton’s speech in 2000 had a rating of 22.4. The rating number represents the percentage of possible households that have TV sets and could watch the speech.
In other words, nearly 80 percent of American households skipped watching the State of the Union live or on a tape-delayed basis on TV.
Viewership numbers actually went up from 2012 for CNN, including a huge 36 percent jump among viewers between 25 and 54 years of age. Viewership was also up on MSNBC.
Competition for the president’s speech included the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which led the ratings on cable TV, and the Univision drama Amores Verdaderos.
President Obama’s first State of the Union speech in 2009 drew 52 million viewers, but the numbers have fallen sharply in recent years. In 2012, 37.7 million people watched the event.
The website TV By the Numbers had early ratings for the four major broadcast networks, which take up the lion’s share of State of the Union viewership.
The four networks had almost 19 million combined viewers between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. EST for the speech in 2013, compared with 26 million in 2012. That is a drop-off of 26.8 percent, based on the numbers reported by the website.
Cable television ratings were higher, and a total of 15 networks showed the speech live or on a delayed basis.
The practice of giving a State of the Union speech dates back to the early days of the Constitution.
Article II, Section 3 says that the president, "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
George Washington gave the first address, but the public speech was discontinued by Thomas Jefferson (who sent a written report to Congress). President Woodrow Wilson revived the public speech, and President Franklin Roosevelt promoted the name “State of the Union" for the event.
One reason for lower viewership in 2013 could be the late scheduling of the speech. With rare exception since the FDR era, the speech has been given in January.
President Ronald Reagan delayed his 1986 speech by a week after the Challenger disaster and spoke to Congress on February 4, 1986. And President Clinton spoke to Congress on February 4, 1997.
On Tuesday night, the president faced stiff competition as the TV world was taking part in ratings sweeps, where channels vie for advertising dollars. Several popular cable TV shows were also on at 9 p.m., as well as a live crime situation outside Los Angeles.
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