TV Column: 33.5 million viewers tune in to Obama’s State of the Union address


President Obama gives a thumbs up to Vice President Biden and House Speaker John A. Boehner before his State of the Union address. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
February 13, 2013

About 33.5 million people across the nation watched President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he told Congress that he will devote much of his second term to closing the income gap between rich and poor and called it “our generation’s task.”

It was the smallest State of the Union audience of at least the past three administrations. Last year, Obama’s address logged 38 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

He averaged 43 million in 2011 and 48 million in ’10. And an impressive 52 million caught Obama’s first such speech, which technically was not a State of the Union address but rather an address to a joint session of Congress.

We know Tuesday’s was the least-watched address since the Clinton White House. Nielsen no longer includes earlier address ratings on its media Web site. We like to think it’s Nielsen’s way of giving the media a taste of the complete exasperation that television network executives say they feel toward the number-crunching company.

For cocktail party chat purposes, here’s a list of some of the State of the Union speeches’ recent biggest nights:

●In 2003, 62 million watched as President George W. Bush outlined his justification for the war in Iraq in his State of the Union address, otherwise known as the Lead-Up to the Iraq War Address, or the Yellowcake Uranium Address.

●In 1998, 53 million watched, the day after President Bill Clinton delivered his equally riveting I Did Not Have Sexual Relations With That Woman speech.

●In 1993, 67 million watched the recently sworn-in Clinton deliver his address to a joint session of Congress.

Frequent front-runner NBC attracted the biggest crowd to Tuesday’s address. An average of 6.47 million people tuned in to the network as Obama demanded action against gun violence, saying: “The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote.”

But NBC nosed out CBS by only 69,000 viewers. Kudos to CBS News, but we feel we should note that the president’s lead-in on CBS was an “NCIS: Los Angeles” rerun, which coughed up more than 9 million viewers. NBC gave him a “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers” lead-in, which only mustered 5 million.

An additional 5.5 million watched Obama speak on ABC, not unexpectedly low when your walk-up is an episode of “The Taste,” which only brings 4.7 million viewers to the table.

All three networks were down substantially compared with last year’s address. In 2012, NBC led with more than 8 million, followed by CBS (more than 7 million) and ABC (6.6 million).

The Fox broadcast network, not to be confused with FNC, contributed an additional 2.4 million viewers to Obama’s haul. Last year, Fox tossed nearly 5 million viewers into the pot.

Cable news networks contributed nearly 10.4 million viewers to the overall take. Fox News finished first in this field, with 3.7 million viewers, down just a hair from last year.

FNC barely edged CNN, which had 3.64 million. CNN, last year’s also-ran — now under new chief Jeff Zucker — was up by about 1 million viewers year to year.

MSNBC slipped to third among cable news networks, with just more than 3 million, though it enjoyed a slightly bigger audience than last year.

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