Unconventional Ratings: Obama's Speech Draws Record 38 Million Viewers

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, August 30, 2008

John McCain will have to do better than naming Tina Fey his vice presidential choice if he expects to attract 38.4 million people to watch his acceptance speech next week, as Barack Obama clocked Thursday night.

Obama's speech, delivered between 10 and 11 p.m. at the [Investment Management Company] Field in Denver, is the most-watched convention speech ever, according to Nielsen Media Research estimates.

More people tuned in to hear Obama's speech than watched the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Beijing. That orgy of intimidating precision, with its cast of thousands, clocked 34.2 million U.S. viewers, remember?

Nearly one out of every five people who watched Obama's talk saw it on CNN.

The cable news network averaged more than 8 million viewers in that hour, making it far and away the network of choice for Obama-viewing.

Second-place ABC News clocked 6.6 million viewers, in a rare convention win over NBC News, which copped 6.1 million viewers. CBS News trailed with 4.6 million, barely edging out Fox News Channel (4.2 million) and MSNBC (4.1 million).

Obama's speech garnered nearly 60 percent more viewers than John Kerry's Dem acceptance speech four years ago.

And, as best Nielsen can tell, Al Gore drew somewhere around 22 million viewers with his acceptance speech in '00 (about the same as George W. Bush's speech at the Republican convention), and Bill Clinton about 27 million-ish in '92.

The numbers for these earlier conventions aren't so clean because, in '92, for instance, the broadcast networks provided more than one hour of the conventions each night and Nielsen did not break out the hour in which the candidate gave his acceptance speech.

"Unfortunately, we're never going to know [the audience size] for just the speech" on these earlier conventions, a Nielsen rep told The TV Column.

"But it appears [Obama's speech] is far and away the largest audience for an . . . acceptance speech since Nielsen instituted the People Meter, which was the first time we were able to have 'persons' data."

Obama's bid for a viewership record has many things working in its favor.

First, the population is larger today than in, say, '96. Plus, Obama's speech was covered by a whole lot of networks: not only ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, BET and TV One but also Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision.

Back in '96, Nielsen was just adding CNN's convention numbers for the first time. FNC and MSNBC didn't make the number-cruncher's convention tally until 2000.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company