Those Inauguration Ratings

President Obama’s second inauguration is a historic event that will be watched by millions.  I wouldn’t dare speculate on the outcome of a second Obama term, but I will predict that when the inauguration’s TV ratings are released, someone will question their accuracy.

Like much else in modern America, even TV ratings are now viewed through a political lens.  Four years ago, some Republicans took satisfaction from the fact that Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration, with 41.8 million viewers, continued to hold the record as the most-watched event of its kind.  Simultaneously, Democrats complained that Nielsen undercounted the number of people watching the Obama inauguration (37.8 million viewers).

This mini-brouhaha is a good example of how difficult it is to compare ratings across different eras and why it’s important to pay close attention to what is actually being reported.

Upon reflection, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that more people watched Reagan’s first inauguration than Obama’s.  As bad as things seem for the U.S. today, they were even worse in 1981, with the Cold War, stagflation and a crisis of confidence. To top it off, the Iran hostage crisis was coming to a final culmination.  Indeed, the Iranians spitefully refused to release their captives until the minute Jimmy Carter was no longer President, so the swearing-in itself was a cliffhanger.



Almost as important, the three big networks still dominated the TV landscape, so there wasn’t much else to watch that day besides the inauguration. By contrast the Obama inauguration faced significant competition from hundreds of cable channels.

When discussing inauguration or any television ratings, it’s important to remember what exactly is being reported.  Nielsen typically reports an “average audience,” which is the average number of viewers watching over the course of a program.  This is not a cumulative number (i.e., how many people watched at least one minute). Nor is it a minute-by-minute account, which could tell us the highest number of people watching at any one time. 

I have no insight into what metric Nielsen will release tomorrow, but in 2009 it provided the average number of viewers watching throughout the entire inaugural broadcast, which lasted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. – a seven-hour stretch.  Certainly more than 37.8 million people were watching at the moment when Obama was sworn in, just as more than 41.8 million people were watching when Regan was sworn in, but the reported number was for the whole event.

Why 10 a.m. to 5 p.m? Because that was the period when the cable and broadcast networks were providing coverage.  Also, this extended period is comparable to the historical record.  It wouldn’t be a fair apples-to-apples comparison to take the top two hours of Obama coverage and compare it to the full seven hours of coverage from previous inaugurations.

Critics have a valid complaint that these ratings do not include people watching the inauguration at work, in bars, or at outside rallies.  Of course the same has been true from the beginning of time. TV ratings have never included viewing outside the home.  But keep in mind that even if viewing at work were included, an employee who watched an hour of the inauguration during lunch would only have one-seventh the weight of someone at home who watched the entire seven hours. So the lack of out-of-home measurement is somewhat less important in inaugural coverage than it seems at first, because people in offices and bars probably don’t watch more than an hour or two.

I am less persuaded by those who are complain that Nielsen doesn’t measure Internet viewing, especially as it pertained to 2009.  Four years ago, many news sites made extravagant claims about the number of people who watched the inauguration online.  Again, a “unique view” is a considerably different metric than an “average audience” number. All the unique view tells you is that someone clicked onto the site – it says nothing about how long he or she watched. 

I personally have a jaundiced view of Internet metrics, having tried to watch online in my office in 2009. I clicked on four or five different news sites at least five or six times each.   Because of the buffering, I was never able to see any streaming coverage, and to watch the swearing-in I had to troop down to the conference room where there was a TV.  I have no doubt, though, that the news sites included me in their total of unique views.

Maybe this year there will be enough capacity to stream the event to all viewers, in which case the numbers might be more meaningful, but until sites are able to release average audience numbers, we can’t really tell the impact of streaming.

Having said all this, I haven’t mentioned what may be the crucial factor in viewing totals: day of week.  In 2009, the inauguration was on a work day; in 2013 it’s on a national holiday when many people will be home watching television.  It’s just possible that this may be the rare second inauguration that has more viewers than the first.


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