The incredible shrinking presidential address

at 03:11 PM ET, 01/24/2012

In 2006, political scientists Matthew Baum and Samuel Kernell crunched the numbers on American viewership of presidential addresses. They found a steep decline since the 1980s, with cable television largely to blame:

Even President Ford’s notably uncharismatic appearances did not prompt viewers to turn off their televisions (or tune over to public or local independent programming) offers compelling evidence that during the pre-cable era, watching the president imposed minimal opportunity costs ... Cable gives viewers choices, and for this reason, it makes watching the president costly.

President Obama’s speeches fall in line with this trend. His State of the Union addresses average a 0.30 Nielsen rating, which measures the percent of households tuned in to an average minute of a program. Even Obama’s most-watched speech, on the death of Osama Bin Laden, only hit a 0.34 Nielsen rating, far below averages for Nixon and Ford.

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