If the presidential election were a contest for television popularity, the Democratic party would be able to claim victory in a key early battle.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s closing speech last week edged out President Donald Trump’s lengthy Thursday night address in viewership, according to early Nielsen data. Among the six major broadcast and cable news networks, Trump’s speech brought in 19.85 million total viewers, the ratings firm announced Friday, compared to 21.8 million for Biden.
Across their respective four nights of programming, the DNC averaged more than 20 million total viewers per night in the 10 p.m. spotlight viewing hour, compared to 17.4 million total viewers for the RNC. These numbers, however, only include those who watched on the three major broadcast networks and three major cable news channels – ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC – and not the increasing number who streamed convention coverage online.
Both conventions, which were primarily virtual events relying heavily on pretaped content, were down significantly from 2016. The DNC experienced a 21.6 percent drop, while the RNC experienced a more significant 28.9 percent drop. The disparity between the audience between the two parties was also greater this year than during the last two convention cycles.
Viewership trends for this year’s conventions also hewed closely to the ideological leanings of each of the cable news networks.
During the Republican convention, Fox News was king, averaging 7.8 million total viewers during the 10 p.m. hour compared to 1.96 million for CNN and 1.69 for the more left-leaning MSNBC. On Thursday night, Fox News attracted a massive 9.18 million total viewers during Trump’s speech, accounting for nearly half the total convention audience for the night.
During the Democratic convention, however, MSNBC, with 5.79 million viewers, and CNN, with 5.13 million, were on top, while Fox News trailing at an average 2.36 million per night.
The audience data also shows the election-season dominance of the politics-heavy cable news networks, which mostly defeated the broadcast news networks for convention coverage, even though broadcast’s nightly news shows usually draw far more viewers than even the most popular shows on cable. During the conventions, Fox News and CNN were tied for the lead among the 25-to-54 age demographic that is most attractive to advertisers.
While Biden and Trump each attracted the biggest audience for their respective convention, their numbers still paled in comparison to the more than 38 million viewers who in 2008 tuned in for speeches by then-candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.
Biden’s TV edge over Trump could speak to the public’s curiosity about the former vice president, whose campaign has been less visible during the pandemic; while viewers have had no shortage of opportunities to see Trump speak on television in recent months.
“I think the DNC was surprisingly successful as a television event,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, the head of Hofstra University’s school of communication and a former NBC News executive who produced the network’s convention coverage in 2004, 2012 and 2016. “They very smartly choreographed the pace of each evening.”
The RNC, he said, “was much more like a traditional presentation. It was a very long set of speakers, less video and produced creative content and more speeches, the majority of which were in the exact same setting and the same backdrop and had a tremendous sameness to them.”
With its mix of formats, including musical performances and splashes of comedy, Syracuse University television scholar Robert Thompson likened last week’s DNC to a “a 1970′s variety show.” It was “a tighter, better produced” television product than the RNC, which he said dragged on a bit. “There were many opportunities to go to the bathroom or check the microwave during this convention, because so much stuff lasted a lot longer,” he said.
While pored over by the television networks and political campaigns, Thompson said “the real measure of success of convention coverage is ultimately judged not by the ratings, but judged by the votes of people.”