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October 04, 2008

The TV ratings election

82593646_2Have Nielsen ratings ever been so politicized?

-- Barack Obama received record-breaking viewers for his Democratic National Convention speech.

-- John McCain's convention speech shocked pundits by matching Obama.

-- The first Obama-McCain debate received a surprisingly non-historic viewership.

-- Yet the debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden drew a blowout audience, the most watched vp debate ever.

But what does this all mean, exactly?

Does McCain roughly tying Obama during the conventions mean they’re equally popular? Does the sluggish Obama-McCain debate rating suggest voters have already made up their minds? Did record-setting vp debate prove TV viewers are crazy about Palin, or that audiences were hoping to witness a train wreck with lipstick?

Readers have voraciously tracked the ratings for each political event as mini-elections; Nielsen tea leaves that hint which party will win the White House in November. McCain’s speech, which surpassed Obama’s by the slimmest of margins, had some readers scrambling for extra viewers like ballot counters examining hanging chads: What about PBS? What about online viewing? If McCain got more, that means he won, right?

But a Nielsen point is not the same as a ballot. We don’t really want our real-life doctors obsessing about their love lives (“Grey’s Anatomy”), or to get trapped on a deadly island (“Lost”) or to spend time with the likes of Homer Simpson.

Reactions to ratings during election season often overlook typical viewing motives such as simple curiosity and the desire to be entertained. Regardless of which ticket you support, the Biden-Palin debate was widely expected to be more entertaining than McCain-Obama (and was).

Viewers also fail to consider scheduling factors. A massive NFL lead-in helped boost McCain’s convention speech. Depressed Friday viewership kept down the numbers for the Obama-McCain debate. But Palin-Biden’s Thursday bout was held on television’s most-watched night of the week.

It’s true we are more likely to watch a character we like, and true that voters are more inclined to watch their preferred candidate. Yet the TV audience is also not a Gallup-worthy representation of likely voters (the average age of a TV viewer is 50; average age of a voter in the 2008 general election is projected to be 44, etc).

"They're not very similar," says TV historian Tim Brooks. "TV is more female-skewed and downscale, and the median age of the news nets is even older than the TV audience in general. If a candidate really fumbles a debate a lot of people will see it -- both in the debate and later -- but otherwise it's just 'politicians talking.'"

The pre-election numbers that really matter, of course, are the polls. RCP currently has Obama ahead of McCain by an average of six points. Polls taken since the Palin-Biden debate have, if anything, only improved Obama’s standing.

This isn’t to say the Nielsen returns for political events are utterly meaningless. Obama's speech gave the candidate an enormous audience. McCain's equal viewership precipitated a rise for the Republican candidate in the polls. Palin's numbers suggest voters have strong feelings about her, and that she could impact the Republican ticket more than a typical vp candidate.

But if I were to ascribe any true ironclad Meaning to all the figures, I would say only this: viewers are clearly more interested in the outcome of the November election than any other in recent history.

Oh, and that having a debate on a Thursday is better than a Friday.


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