In the Convention Ratings Race, We Already Have a Winner

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By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, August 22, 2008

More of you will watch the Democratic National Convention next week than will watch the Republican National Convention that follows.

We know this because -- irrespective of this election cycle's historic it's-about-time Dem nomination of a nonwhite guy who, we know from that GOP ad, is a rock star the likes of which we haven't seen since the pre-slammer days of Paris Hilton -- historically you are more attracted to the Democrats' confabs than to those thrown by the GOP.

Given the closeness of this presidential race and how many people say they are still undecided about their voting intentions, this TV ratings point may actually be very important. TV types generally acknowledge that, while conventions for some time have been little more than pomp-and-circumstance ceremonies, this time the shows the two parties will put on for the viewing public -- and how many people see them -- could have a profound effect on the outcome of this election.

In the 12 presidential election years starting in 1960, more homes tuned in to the Republican National Convention only three times, according to the TV-viewing-clocker Nielsen Co.

Those years: 1972, when incumbent Richard Nixon was the presumptive nominee; 1976, when sort-of incumbent Gerald Ford was the presumptive nominee; and 2004, when incumbent George W. Bush was the presumptive nominee.

That shoots your theory about how the biggest audience goes to the most exciting convention, since all of the above involved someone already in the White House getting the GOP nomination. Zzzzzz . . . I also can nuke any theory about the GOP convention attracting the largest crowd whenever a Republican president is nominated to a second term.

In 1984, when Ronald Reagan, a.k.a. the Great Communicator, was nominated a second time, an average of 16.2 million households tuned in to convention coverage, but 19.5 million homes watched the Democratic confab to see Walter Mondale nominated. Go figure.

And your theory about how the party that goes first getting the bigger TV audience? Forgetaboutit! Ditto the flip-theory that the convention going second cops the larger audience.

This leaves us with only the Hollywood/Chaos Theory: More households are drawn to Democratic clambakes because they historically have had more Hollywood star wattage. Also, the Republican convention tends to be choreographed to death, while the Dems' bash is usually more exciting TV because of its ever-so-slightly-dangerous, can't-get-their-act-together quality. It's not much of a theory, but it's the best we've got.

Here are two more head-scratchers: The most watched Democratic National Convention ever occurred in 1980, when 20.7 million homes caught Jimmy Carter receiving his party's nomination. But the most watched convention of all, ever, was that '76 nomination of Gerald Ford, with nearly 22 million households tuned in.

In the last go-round in '04, only about 15.5 million homes watched the Democratic convention, and 16.8 million homes caught the Republican get-together. Those households translated to about 20 million and 23 million viewers, respectively.

Sadly, Nielsen, which has a lock on the TV-viewing stats game, cannot tell us how many viewers watched the conventions before 2000. For years, the company tracked only household statistics, not individual viewers, because Nielsen traditionally has been on the cutting edge of catching up. But the so-called People Meters that allowed Nielsen to get quick viewer numbers were available in '92 and '96.


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