This post has been updated.
On Thursday night, President Obama gave a primetime address on his planned executive actions concerning immigration reform. It's a politically volatile move opposed by most Republicans and considered long overdue by immigration reform advocates, and it is a very big deal.
Most people did not watch this primetime address. The White House floated the idea of running the speech at 8 p.m. by the major networks, and were greeted with little more than a "Mmm, no thanks."
ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS knew that their customers would not be happy if the President ate into time reserved for some of the most popular shows on television, including "The Big Bang Theory" and "Bones." (Editor's Note: If I wasn't watching Obama's speech, I'd be watching "The This Old House Hour.")
November happens to be "sweeps" month, when programming tries and encourage more viewers to turn in by promising more exciting content. Presidential sweeps don't always ensure the exciting cliffhangers and plot twists that networks are looking for.
According to Politico, the politics of the announcement provided an additional excuse for networks that didn't want to see their ratings deflate on Thursday.
A network insider tells Playbook: “There was agreement among the broadcast networks that this was overtly political. The White House has tried to make a comparison to a time that all the networks carried President Bush in prime time, also related to immigration . But that was a bipartisan announcement, and this is an overtly political move by the White House.”
The President's speech did air on cable, which means that people who already know everything there is to know about the immigration fight will be tuning in, as well as Telemundo and Univision, where those watching will likely be the demographic that the White House is most eager to inform about the executive actions. As Ed O'Keefe reported on Wednesday,
Obama's 8 p.m. Eastern time announcement will come at the start of the second hour of the 15th annual Latin Grammys, which begins at 7 p.m. Thursday on Spanish-language TV network Univision. At least 9.8 million viewers tuned in to all or part of last year's telecast, meaning Univision defeated CBS, Fox and NBC that night.
In the end, many local network affiliated decided to run the speech anyway. Some people were elated, while others reacted exactly as networks feared.
I am 15 minutes behind because my local stations showed the President's speech...ugh... lol— Is-rai-el (@ChangingNature) November 21, 2014
Only 2 local tv stations showing #Obama speech. Not sure how I feel about this.Despite subject, thinking it's disrespectful to The Office.— The Queen (@MayhemMikiMojo) November 21, 2014
A great many local affiliates are choosing to break from network and air President Obama's speech tonight.— Myles Miller (@mylesnewyork) November 21, 2014
.@WBTV_News Thank you for carrying President Obama's immigration speech this evening. Good to know we can depend on you for news. Local CBS.— Pnthrgrlgail (@Mama4Obama1) November 20, 2014
Obama's speech is on over Bones. Now I'll have to wait will tomorrow to watch it and with commercials #ThanksObama 😑— Melissa (@majorminus8) November 21, 2014
@noamscheiber It looks like many local stations ignored the big Networks and aired the speech. All local stations here in Chicago aired it.— Thomas W Polk (@twpolk) November 21, 2014
@FOXTV when can we see tonight's bones again. Stupid Obama messed up everything, have an idea when its going to be on demand— Melody Hastings (@melodyhastings) November 21, 2014
I mean thank Obama for putting your dumb speech over my Big Bang theory episode👏— Tiffani Kay Jones (@tiffani_kay96) November 21, 2014
Probably lost the last 17 minutes of Bones because the president decided to talk about immigration on this channel. THANKS OBAMA— ❁ tiffany ❁ (@tiffanyliberto) November 21, 2014
Went to go watch the new episode of Bones and there was an address from Obama instead. I am not amused. 😡😡 #ThanksAlotObama— Jordan Olinger (@jordanbrooke96) November 21, 2014
Obama sucks.. I disagree with his policies and he ruined my recording of the Big Bang Theory...— Ben Holmes (@bwholmes03) November 21, 2014
As if Obama hasn't screwed up enough, his speech jacked up my dvr of Big Bang Theory. Bad policy is one thing, but don't mess w my shows!— Karen Cleveland (@DrKarenC) November 21, 2014
Thank you President Obama for giving a State of the Union address. Now I cant watch the Big Bang Theory— Justin Czipo (@_samurai_jac) November 21, 2014
As these tweets show, it seems that many people wouldn't have bothered to pay attention to the speech even if the broadcast networks had decided to run it across the board (something I've written about before). As the White House is very aware of, Americans stopped paying attention to presidential primetime addresses long before the glut of options provided by Netflix, HBOGo and Hulu arrived on the scene. By 2006, back when cable was the only competitor that network television truly had to worry about, the viewership of presidential addresses had plummeted. (Back when TV was still shiny and new and networks ran the show, presidential press conferences could draw a majority of television owners.)
In 2014, there are hundreds of channels or online videos Americans can watch instead of the presidential addresses the network decides to run, and it's hard to even make people tune into something as high profile and much-discussed as the annual State of the Union address. In 1994, 66.9 million viewers tuned in to watch President Bill Clinton's State of the Union. This year, 33.3 million Americans watched Obama's latest State of the Union. About the same number of Americans watched the President's September speech on the Islamic State.
Not only does Obama now have to compete with the endless options Americans have to avoid him — so do the networks, which is why they have become increasingly strategic when deciding whether to cut to a White House address or not. The heyday for presidential speeches was the heyday for network programming too. Fifty million Americans used to tune in to watch a sitcom during the Nixon administration; today, even the "Big Bang Theory" only attracts about 16 million viewers. Even the broadcast network's streaming Web sites get less traffic than cable ones and Netflix.
When you're already losing revenue, giving the president the spotlight isn't always the best business decision. Or ever the best business decision.
Although the White House may grumble about this state of affairs -- eh? -- they've also proven especially gifted at figuring out how to move on from the fact they will never rule the TV screen quite like President Reagan. It's a smart thing for the White House to learn — not only are network audiences shrinking, they're limited to including people who remember how great Reagan's speeches were. In 2010, Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of Americans over the age of 55 watch the nightly news. Among Americans aged 18-49, only 37 percent do.
If you want to reach more Americans, you have to diversify your outreach portfolio. Which is exactly what the Obama administration has been doing. President Obama announced his upcoming speech on Facebook. The video has been shared more than 50,000 times.
The White House's Spanish-language Twitter feed announced the speech in Spanish and English. ...
Mañana a las 8 PM ET el Presidente Obama hablará sobre las próximas medidas para arreglar nuestro sistema migratorio https://t.co/JXgqbafWT9— La Casa Blanca (@lacasablanca) November 19, 2014
... as did the main White House Twitter feed. ...
President Obama will address the nation tomorrow night on new steps he's taking to fix our broken immigration system: http://t.co/tsLHuHb3Ed— The White House (@WhiteHouse) November 19, 2014
... and the Barack Obama Twitter feed.
The President will address the nation tomorrow about the steps he's taking to help fix our broken immigration system. http://t.co/NgrlmkUgAS— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) November 19, 2014
On Thursday night, the White House Web site live-streamed the address.
Although viewership of Obama's speeches continues to drop, the volume of tweets discussing his speeches continues to grow every year.
The 2013 State of the Union address spawned 1.35 million tweets. A year later, the speech led to 1.64 million tweets.
President Obama may not be able to win over the networks anymore, but the audience he would reach there is so diminished, it's hard to find a reason that it matters outside of Americans' undying impulse to be nostalgic about everything.