38 Million Watched the Inauguration

Nielsen's numbers clock Obama's swearing-in as second only to Ronald Reagan's, but don't include the millions who watched at offices and schools, or via live Web video streaming.
Nielsen's numbers clock Obama's swearing-in as second only to Ronald Reagan's, but don't include the millions who watched at offices and schools, or via live Web video streaming. (By Tony Sandys -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, January 22, 2009

About 38 million people watched Barack Obama's swearing-in as the first African American president of the United States on an actual TV set, Nielsen Media Research announced late yesterday -- a crowd second only to the nearly 42 million people who watched Ronald Reagan sworn in as the first Hollywood actor to become president of the United States way back in 1981.

But, of course, Nielsen being Nielsen, this 38 million does not include anyone who watched the historic event at their office or school. Which is just right, because the swearing-in and new-prez speechifying happened in the middle of the day, when millions and millions of people are, let's see, at work or at school. Perfect!

But, Nielsen points out, this most gigantic hole in its information-gathering method has been the case since forever -- so it's okay. Really, don't you strongly suspect the brain trust at Nielsen of being the sort of people you'd catch strolling up to the Washington Monument to ask the security guard whether they could direct them to the Washington Monument?

And while we're at it, clocking only those who watched the inauguration on an actual TV set, while perfectly appropriate in 1981, today, well -- maybe not so much. Adding in what appears to be a historic number of people who watched the swearing-in via live Web video streaming -- or at least tried to -- and those who watched on TVs at their offices or schools, we think it's safe to speculate that Obama's swearing-in attracted the largest crowd in our history. At any rate, Nielsen can't prove us wrong.

This go-round, Nielsen's number includes a combination of 17 broadcast and cable networks and includes programming between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., which, yes, means it includes all that "other stuff," such as the Official Reading of the Poem, the slo-mo motorcade, the marching bands, etc. The networks include ABC, CBS, NBC, Univision, Telemundo, BET, TVOne, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN Headline News, BBCA, three MTV networks and even ESPN.

To Nielsen's credit, though the company was hours late getting the numbers out -- the people pulling the numbers for them in Florida got confused, we were told -- they did manage to include time-shifting. Therefore, this year's average TV audience, 37.793 million viewers, is the first for an inaugural that is based on Live + Same Day, meaning anyone who recorded the event and watched at some point during the day. Hooray for that major step toward this millennium.

For nearly three decades, Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration has had a stranglehold on the swearing-in crown.

Meanwhile, over in the dubious-distinction category, George W. Bush's second inauguration is on the books as the least-watched, with a mere 15.5 million tuned in -- about as many people as watched that "CSI" rerun last Thursday, which was supposed to air at 8 p.m. but got bumped to 9:15 in the East to make room for Bush's so-long speech to America.

Obama's inauguration logged about 22 million more viewers than four years ago.

To be fair, Bush's first inauguration logged an average of 29 million. First-time inaugurations of two-term presidents typically draw higher ratings than their second. President Richard Nixon is the notable exception: His second inauguration clocked nearly 33 million viewers, while his first logged just 27 million.

Meanwhile, TV networks' news sites broke records Tuesday for live streaming video.

CNN, for one, reported a best-yet 21.3 million streams and a peak of 1.3 million simultaneous streams. MSNBC.com says it broke its own record, serving 9.1 million live streams for the day, and 18.2 million total online video streams, breaking its previous all-time high, set during its coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. ABC News, Fox News -- practically every site had a banner day.

"Yesterday was probably the biggest news day in the history of the Internet," a rep of Akamai Technologies told The TV Column. Akamai is a company that serves Web video for major Web publishers.

Akamai on Tuesday reported a peak of 5.4 million simultaneous visitors per minute to the sites for which it hosts video, as well as about 7 million simultaneous streams.

Now, the TV horse race: Between noon and 1 p.m. Tuesday, when Obama was sworn in -- the first time -- NBC was the TV pack leader, with an average audience of 12.2 million viewers. Closest competitor ABC logged an average of about 11.8 million. CBS's coverage clocked about 8.3 million viewers, closely followed by CNN with 8.1 million. Fox News Channel came in with an average of 5.2 million viewers in the hour and MSNBC nearly 3 million.

That comes to around 49 million viewers watching at home -- or in their dorm rooms if they are a college-age member of a Nielsen family.

In the D.C. market, the race shaped up much the same way among broadcasters. NBC-owned WRC led the pack with an average of 640,500 viewers between noon and 12:30 p.m. That was well ahead of ABC-affiliated WJLA, which averaged 355,000 viewers in the half hour; Fox-owned WTTG, with its average of 303,500 viewers; and CBS-affiliated WUSA, which averaged 200,500 viewers.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company