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.
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. ...
... as did the main White House Twitter feed. ...
... and the Barack Obama Twitter feed.
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.