NEW YORK Maybe it's the uncertain economy or the historical significance of Barack Obama being the first African-American presidential nominee from a major political party. Or maybe people were curious about the odd coupling of John McCain and Sarah Palin, the heretofore virtually unknown vice-presidential candidate from Alaska.
Whatever the reasons, viewers tuned in to this year's political-convention coverage in record numbers, suggesting that Americans may be more engaged with the political process than ever before. "There is unparalleled interest in this campaign" among the electorate, said Jack Wakschlag, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting System.
Both presidential candidates appeared to have set viewing records with their respective speeches, according to Nielsen Media Research. The math is a little fuzzy, since Nielsen does not have total viewer data going back to past conventional coverage. But a rep for the company said, "We are not aware of any number higher than the night that Obama gave his speech." That is, until the numbers for the McCain speech were spit out a week later, showing an even bigger audience.
The Obama numbers from Aug. 28: 27.7 million households and 38.4 million total viewers. When McCain took center stage last Thursday, he beat his Democratic rival's audience by about 600,000 households (28.3 million total) and half a million viewers (38.9 million).
Palin's numbers weren't far behind. Last Wednesday, she delivered 26.9 million households and 37.2 million viewers, per Nielsen, in a speech that The New York Times said "electrified" the convention. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, lagged a bit, with 18.5 million households and 24 million viewers.
Over the course of their convention, the Republicans drew the bigger average nightly audience: 34.5 million viewers, about 14 percent more than the 30.2 million viewers tuning into the Democratic convention each night, on average, to hear the big speeches.
Still, on a household basis, both conventions outdrew any previous convention going back to 1960, according to the Nielsen data. The Republicans averaged 25.1 million homes nightly, and the Democrats 22.5 million, over the course of their respective gatherings. On the Republican side, the previous high was 21.9 million homes in 1976. On the Democratic side, the previous high was 20.7 million in 1980.
Both CNN and Fox News capitalized on the bigger audiences. CNN's coverage of the Obama speech drew 8.1 million viewers, and ranked as the highest-rated program of that day on any network, including all the other networks covering the speech. Fox News drew more viewers to the McCain speech on Sept. 4 than any other network: 9.2 million.
So, why the lack of apathy? "You have a historic set of circumstances now," said Turner's Wakschlag. Obama is pulling new viewers into the coverage, he said. "There is a huge influx of interest and ratings among African-American viewers and young viewers," said Wakschlag.
The Republican side is also drawing in younger, traditionally lighter news viewers this year, thanks to the 44-year-old Palin.
Wakschlag credits the so-called millennials, today's twentysomethings, with being more interested in politics than their predecessors. "They are more engaged and more socially committed," he said. "They care more about the welfare of the country than prior generations have."