Television viewership down for unconventional convention

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, August 19, 2020

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NEW YORK — Preliminary estimates show that viewership for the first night of the Democrats’ virtual convention was down compared with the opening of Hillary Clinton’s nominating party four years ago.

An estimated 18.7 million people watched coverage between 10 and 11 p.m. on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, the Nielsen company said. Four years ago, opening night drew just under 26 million viewers.

Nielsen’s preliminary numbers did not include streaming or networks like PBS and CSPAN; a more comprehensive estimate is due later Tuesday.

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MSNBC and CNN, which aired the Democrats’ two-hour prepared telecast essentially in its entirety, were rewarded with the biggest audiences. MSNBC had 5.1 million viewers and CNN had 4.78 million, roughly twice what the broadcast networks reached.

Fox News Channel’s audience of 2.1 million viewers was smaller than what time slot occupant Laura Ingraham reaches on a typical night, perhaps explaining why Fox didn’t preempt Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity earlier in the evening.

Those networks that didn’t air the Democrats’ program in its entirety struggled to keep up Monday. In the end, they were rewarded with the most traditional of political events — a powerful speech.

Before former first lady Michelle Obama’s keynote address, much of the coverage felt uncomfortably like watching an army making the common mistake of fighting a new conflict with the tactics of the last war.

“This will not be like any convention we have seen before, ever,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said. “The coronavirus changes the way we do everything.”

The pandemic forced Democrats to abandon a Milwaukee convention hall. Instead, the party produced a slick, fast-moving infomercial hosted by actress Eva Longoria Baston that featured quick speeches, music and the testimony of non-politicians. It even featured the presidential candidate himself, Joe Biden, as a television “anchor” interviewing five figures arrayed before him on screens.

Speakers stood before a variety of backdrops: Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser was above the “Black Lives Matter” plaza, while the pile of firewood behind Sanders made it appear he was getting ready for a long Vermont winter.

Until Sanders and Obama, politicians played a secondary role. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose father Mario’s soaring keynote highlighted the 1984 convention, was immediately overshadowed by Kristin Urquiza’s story of her father’s death from COVID-19.

Typical conventions have moments for television analysts to comfortably opine, when there’s a set change, a boring speaker who drones on too long or lengthy applause by delegates.

That wasn’t the case Monday. For example, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones was essentially ignored in favor of an NBC discussion about mail-in voting; a CBS interview with Reince Priebus, President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff; and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie calling another former governor, Ohio’s John Kasich, a “back-stabber” on ABC.

Although broadcast networks were on the air for the second of the two-hour Democratic show, top personalities like George Stephanopoulos, Norah O’Donnell and Chuck Todd logged time earlier in the evening on livestreams.

After Obama’s speech, commentators were awestruck. The lack of a live audience clapping and cheering seemed beside the point.

“This is how pastors the Sunday before the election are going to sound,” said MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “She preached the word tonight.”