Tuned In

What We’re Learning from the Convention Ratings (Or Lack Thereof)

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The ratings for the first night of the Democratic National Convention are in, and they’re not tremendously more impressive than those for the first night of the RNC: about 22 million viewers in the 10 pm hour, compared with about 20.5 million.*

*Update: The above figures are for the three broadcast and three cable networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, FNC, MSNBC and NBC). Nielsen has also posted full viewing figures including smaller networks and PBS, totaling 22.3 million for the RNC and 26.2 million for the DNC.

One can interpret the figures any number of ways—at the New York Times, Nate Silver conjectured that smaller audiences may correlate to smaller post-convention polling bumps. But here are a few things we can say, and a couple other questions the numbers lead to:

* More people watched the DNC than the RNC—but not many more. By my calculations, about 1.5 million, or a little over 7% more. [Again, this figure is greater with the complete figures including PBS from Nielsen. Infer what you like about Democrats and PBS.]

* It ain’t 2008 anymore. Both conventions were sharply down from the same night in the last election. (In 2008, the conventions were also held the week before and after Labor Day, with the Dems and Reps positions reversed.) A lot of people may simply be tuning out this election (or, at least, following it in other formats and tuning out the conventions).

[Update: I was mistaken, above, to say the DNC was sharply down, though its ratings on channels other than MSNBC were. In 2008, night one got over 22 million voters—whether the DNC rises or drops over the following nights will show how well it compares overall; the 2012 RNC began on pace with 2008, but lagged overall because the next two nights were much lower rated than 2008. And, as I noted last week on Twitter when people noted the dropoff in RNC ratings, you can’t correlate ratings with votes too closely—Sarah Palin got a gigantic tune-in in 2008, and the main beneficiaries were Tina Fey and HBO.]

* Fox and MSNBC have the home-team advantage, and disadvantage. Fox beat all networks night one of the RNC; at the DNC, MSNBC beat everyone except its broadcast sister NBC. Conversely, Fox came in last in overall viewers last night, as MSNBC did with the GOP. CNN also had a boost of over 2 million viewers for the DNC, while the broadcast networks stayed roughly the same. Which makes me wonder…

* How many people are watching both conventions? I suppose it’s possible millions of voters decided Fox was the best place to watch the Republicans and MSNBC the best place to watch the Democrats. But it may also be that millions and millions of voters are watching only the party they already identify with. Which leads to the question…

* Who are TV conventions for anymore? The mythical interested-but-undecided swing voters—do they still exist, and do they watch politics on TV? Are there people out there who haven’t picked a candidate, and are choosing to watch two weeks of conventions to make a reasoned decision based on the two parties’ best arguments? Or is it mostly confirmed politics junkies, just waiting to cheer for the zingers and hear how their own side plans on campaigning to the actual undecided voters?

Maybe. But if you want to reach those undecideds—they may well be watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo instead.