For the media, Inauguration Day was a cross between the Rose Parade, the Olympics and a military maneuver: Think saturation coverage, technological innovation, reams of color and commentary, a tone as momentous as the occasion chronicled — and what could be near-record ratings in the U.S. and around the world.
Tuesday dawned with the images of a National Mall that filled rapidly in advance of Barack Obama’s swearing-in at noon, swelling to the 2 million or more that had been forecast. That made it one of the biggest U.S. crowds ever, a fact reiterated by virtually every pundit.
By the time the sun set, the broadcast and cable networks had chronicled — with barely any commercials — not just the inauguration ceremony but almost every moment save for a private prayer service and a few minutes of the Capitol Hill luncheon.
The events themselves and the TV coverage went off mostly without a hitch, even if the timing was hopelessly thrown off schedule late in the morning and really never recovered. NBC stayed on the air until 5 p.m. before taking a local break; CBS and ABC carried on as the parade began much later than expected. The cablers continued through the night.
There were some raised eyebrows at noontime with the botched oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Roberts. The oath caused some quick checks of the Constitution to see that, yes, it was Roberts who had gone awry — though it didn’t really matter because Obama already was the president, even without the proper oath. And the joyous tenor of the day turned somber for a time when Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts suffered a seizure at the luncheon with the new president. Reporters and anchors scrambled to get the story, with confused early word over whether it was Kennedy or Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who collapsed.
Much of the coverage was admiring, with only a few discordant notes.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said that he was less than impressed with the inaugural address. More common were reactions like those of Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume, who praised Obama’s address; Shepard Smith told viewers he had never seen anything like this, even with the election of the pope.
“Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, right or left, pro or anti this candidacy, it appears that Americans by the millions are enveloping it with love and hope,” Smith said.
TV ratings won’t come in until today, when they are reported, by network and in the aggregate, by THR and Mediaweek parent the Nielsen Co. It wasn’t clear whether the numbers would beat the inaugural record of 42 million viewers for Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. But the audience this time around also included tens of millions of at-work folks who tuned in via broadband and the tens of thousands of others in public gatherings. And it didn’t include the millions more who watched around the world, especially in Europe, where the swearing-in took place in primetime.
“This will be, I believe, the most-watched speech in the history of the world,” CNN vp Sam Feist said.
The inauguration also was big online — very big. Akimai’s Net Usage Index for News shot way up, reaching a peak of 5.4 million unique users just before noon Tuesday. That was below the record of 8.6 million at 11 p.m. on Election Night, when Obama was declared the presidential winner, as well as the 7 million unique users at 2:30 p.m. for the first day of 2008 March Madness college basketball tournament.
CNN.com reported 21.3 million live streams from around the world, more than quadrupling its previous record of 5 million set on Election Night. There were at least 1.3 million concurrent live streams at the peak, which for CNN.com said was right after Obama’s address. By late afternoon, MSNBC.com had seen more than three times the previous record of video streams. FoxNews.com had5 million live video streams related to the inauguration, the best day ever for the site.
“It’s not only been an historic day for our society but certainly for the Internet as well,” said K.C. Estenson, senior vp and general manager of CNN.com.
Estenson and Jennifer Sizemore, editor in chief of MSNBC.com, suggested that Inauguration Day 2009 might be more important for Internet journalism than it would be for TV.
“This is the day that multiplatform really came into its own,” Estenson said.
“From this day forward, it’s etched in people’s minds that im¬portant news events have a home online as they do on TV,” CBSNews.com vp programming Mark Larkin added.
CNN used the inauguration to offer several technological innovations. Taking photographs sent to the network from attendees on the National Mall, the cabler stitched together a detailed 3-D photograph of what it called “the Moment.”
The day also featured some lighter moments.
Former Al Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile acknowledged to ABC’s Charles Gibson that she had grabbed the fleece blanket that Obama had left on the platform after his speech. And NBC’s Al Roker got the first “interview” with President Obama. The Today weatherman had been coached by anchor Brian Williams as Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were walking the parade route toward the White House.
As the Obamas approached, Williams advised Roker to take off his hat to be more recognizable as the president walked by.
“I like the fedora,” Williams said. “It’s very Mad Men. “
Roker yelled to get the president’s attention. Obama smiled and waved him off, then said something to Roker. The exchange was captured on NBC but without audio from the president.
“He told me, ‘It’s warm,’ ” Roker told Williams. Williams joked that it was the first media interview with the new president and added, “Al Roker, news and weather.”