My Friends, That's a Record Audience for a Convention Speech

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, September 6, 2008

It was a nail-biter of a finish, but Republican presidential candidate John McCain edged out Democratic candidate Barack Obama by 500,000 people to win the 2008 Presidential Political Convention Ratings Race.

An impressive 38.9 million people watched McCain's acceptance speech from [Utility Company] Center in St. Paul, Minn., at 10 p.m. Thursday. It now is the most watched political convention acceptance speech in history.

Obama had held that record for exactly one week. His acceptance speech, delivered from [Investment Management Company] Field in Denver, clocked 38.4 million viewers, according to number-crunching Nielsen Media Research.

About 40 percent more people tuned in to each man's speech than had bothered to check out President Bush's acceptance speech in '04.

McCain's vice presidential choice, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, gave Obama a run for his money; her acceptance speech on Wednesday logged more than 37 million viewers.

Reflecting the public's interest in this year's presidential race, the speeches now go on record as the three most watched ever at a presidential convention.

McCain's and Palin's speeches were covered by fewer networks than Obama's. The Democratic convention was covered by BET and TV One, two networks targeting African American viewers, which did not provide live coverage of the GOP convention speeches. Obama's and McCain's speeches were covered live on Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision; Palin's was not.

On the other hand, Nielsen gave McCain and Palin the advantage of a larger sandbox in which to play than the one the Democrats got one week earlier.

Nielsen's updated universe estimates -- a.k.a. the number of TV households in the country -- took effect on Monday. That TV universe grew by nearly 2 million homes, which adds substantially to the number of actual viewers in the pool.

None of the numbers given out by Nielsen during either convention (and reported in The TV Column) included PBS coverage of the two confabs.

The public television station has been sending out its own viewer estimates, but Nielsen says it cannot vouch for those numbers. PBS's numbers are based on overnight ratings, not final national ratings, and include only the 56 metered markets, which do not cover the entire TV universe.

As it was for Palin's speech the night before, Fox News Channel was the network of choice for people watching McCain's. The 9.2 million who watched him on FNC is more than watched on CNN (4.8 million) and MSNBC (2.5 million) combined. His TV audience also matches the cable news channel's audience when Palin spoke the night before. The 9.2 million represents the biggest convention number in cable news history, and FNC's third biggest telecast audience ever, behind only its audiences for President Bush's address on the eve of the Iraq invasion on March 19, 2003 (9.7 million viewers), and Bush's presidential debate with John Kerry on Sept. 30, 2004 (9.5 million).

NBC followed FNC in terms of audience size during McCain's appearance, averaging 8.7 million viewers in the 10 o'clock hour, off a football crowd (Washington at the New York Giants) of nearly 14 million.

ABC garnered 6 million viewers during McCain's talk; CBS logged 5.3 million.

The audiences for the two candidates speeches differed in many respects. For instance, the average number of African Americans who tuned in to hear Obama, 7.5 million, was more than double the 3.1 million who watched McCain. The Republican candidate's speech, on the other hand, attracted about 1.5 million more viewers 55 or older than did Obama's speech. McCain's audience was 83 percent white; Obama's crowd was 70 percent white.

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