President Donald Trump might have been cheering the New England Patriots’ historic comeback on Super Bowl Sunday, but he couldn’t have been happy about his own contribution to the day. His sit-down interview with Bill O’Reilly, which aired during Fox’s pre-Super Bowl coverage, turned out to be something of a ratings dud. And for a president who obsesses over TV ratings and uses them to validate his own identity, the Sunday interview seemed to be the latest example of his fading personal appeal.
Trump’s Q&A with O’Reilly drew approximately 12 million viewers. That’s a respectable number, but when President Barack Obama sat down for the traditional pre-Super Bowl interview in 2009, his first year in office, almost 22 million people tuned in, nearly double Trump’s audience. (And it wasn't a matter of who was playing later; game viewership ratings in 2017 were substantially higher than those in 2009.) Even Obama’s pre-Super Bowl interviews during his second term in office easily outpaced the audience size for Trump’s recent sit-down. Obama drew 18 million viewers in 2014, 16 million in 2015, and 15 million last year.
That’s been the pattern in recent weeks, as Trump, who spent 2016 chronically boasting about his ability to spike TV news ratings, clearly falls short of the ratings successes Obama posted early in his presidency. As the least popular new president in modern American history, Trump seems to having trouble connecting with the masses.
For instance, on January 25, ABC News’ David Muir conducted the first prime-time interview with Trump following his inauguration. The show “didn’t set the Nielsen charts aflame,” drawing just 7.5 million viewers and weakly performing in the “advertiser-coveted” 18-49 demographic, as Variety reported. How many viewers watched Obama’s first prime-time interview as president? Seventeen million, or 10 million more than tuned in for Trump.
At the end of last month, when Trump turned his announcement of a Supreme Court nominee into a prime-time production, 33 million people watched. In contrast, Obama’s first prime-time event was a press conference he held on the night of February 4, 2009, when nearly 50 million Americans watched.
And then there was the size of Trump’s inauguration audience, which became a topic that drove the White House to distraction. After bragging that his swearing-in would perhaps draw the largest crowd in Washington, D.C., history, only to have a modest-sized audience show up, Trump began wildly inflating the estimates. The crowd “looked like a million, million and a half,” he announced at a speech the day after inauguration, while a crowd-science expert estimated that Trump's audience was about one-third the size of Obama's approximately 1.8 million-person crowd in 2009.
Then -- after continuing to stew over crowd size numbers throughout the day -- Trump sent White House press secretary Sean Spicer to the White House press briefing room to angrily tell reporters that Trump’s swearing-in attracted “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the world."
Trump himself tweeted about how large his inauguration TV audience was, bragging that more people watched his swearing-in than Obama's four years earlier.
But Trump's citation of Obama's second inaugural was a red herring; here are the facts: Across 12 television networks, 31 million people watched Trump’s inauguration, which was 7 million fewer than watched Obama’s first inauguration. That represented a nearly 20 percent decline in viewership. (Trump also garnered fewer viewers than both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.)
Some caveats: Trump’s Fox News interview with Sean Hannity last month was a big success. So we know that within the right-wing media bubble, Trump remains a star attraction.
And the topic of Trump is still driving viewers to television news teams. The 2016 election cycle delivered a ratings bonanza for cable news, with all three networks enjoying robust audience gains: Fox was up 36 percent in 2016 compared to 2015, CNN, 77 percent, and MSNBC, 87 percent. (MSNBC posted its best year ever, and CNN its best since 1995.) And their ratings remain strong in 2017.
Note also that as it rides a wave of Trump mockery, Saturday Night Live is posting its best numbers in 22 years.
But the idea that Trump himself stands as some sort of cultural phenomenon and that Americans flock to their TVs every time he appears in front of a camera is simply not accurate. (Television news producers, please take note.)
In television-speak, viewer fatigue seems to have set in and the plot line already appears to be running thin. Keep in mind that Trump just made history by losing the popular vote tally by nearly 3 million votes and remains the least popular new president since modern-day polling was invented.
Trump’s tepid Nielsen numbers are bad news for the president since he’s utterly obsessed with television ratings. Even before entering politics, he routinely took to Twitter to tout the numbers for his show Celebrity Apprentice. (“For Trump, Everything Is a Rating,” noted a recent New York Times headline.) For years, Trump has turned to ratings as a way to both validate himself and to undercut his foes.
And yes, Trump has openly lied about ratings when they didn’t convey the storyline he preferred -- when they didn’t confirm his status as a winner.
Former (and now deceased) Celebrity Apprentice publicist Jim Dowd told PBS' Frontline in 2015 that even as the show's ratings plummeted, Trump demanded he call the TV reporters at major publications and tell them, "'No. 1 show on television, won its time slot,' and I'm looking at the numbers and at that point, say Season 5, for example, we were No. 72."'
Last year, Dowd told CNN that in his 20 years in the television business, he’d never seen anyone “who cared as deeply about ratings, positive or negative, as Donald Trump."
On the eve of the inauguration, Bill Scher, writing in New Republic, suggested there was no better way to rattle a man “uniquely obsessed with being seen” than to tune out his swearing-in and deprive him of a big TV audience to brag about. “A mass refusal to watch Trump on TV will deprive him of big ratings, which he routinely uses to create a false impression of widespread popularity.”
There hasn’t yet been a mass refusal to watch Trump in recent weeks, but the shoulder shrug does seem to be spreading.