In politics, as in sport, timing can be everything. Surely that’s what drove President Obama's request to be allowed to address a joint session of Congress on September 7, at the exact time when NBC and Politico are scheduled to host a debate among the Republican presidential hopefuls. And, surely, that’s why House Speaker John Boehner fired back his recommendation that Obama postpone the address until September 8, when the New Orleans Saints are set to take on the Green Bay Packers in the NFL season opener. Late Wednesday night, Obama spokesman Jay Carney announced that the President would grant the Speaker his wish.
By acceding to Boehner's request, Obama is likely to lose potential viewers. Almost nothing else on television can compete with the NFL, especially not when it's a big event for the league. Last year’s season opener, broadcast nationally on NBC, drew a record 27.5 million viewers, and the network expects to top that this time around. By comparison, only 15.5 million people saw the highest-rated game of the 2010 World Series.
Similar numbers of people have tuned in for addresses by Obama (not including show stoppers like the State of the Union or the death of Osama Bin Laden, which draw bigger ratings). 25.6 million tuned in for his March 28 speech about Libya, 25.4 million when he talked about Afghanistan on June 22. Addresses in 2010 on Iraq and the BP oil spill did 29.2 million and 32.1 million, respectively. But all those viewers were spread out across multiple outlets on both broadcast and cable—football does similar numbers on just one network. It’s fair to assume that if his address airs on all the networks that would usually pick up such an event except for NBC, Obama would still lose out to the Saints and the Packers.
On the other hand, Obama’s initial plan—to speak the same night of the GOP debate—could very well have helped rather than hurt NBC and Politico’s ratings. Shortly after Obama made his request, Politico’s John Harris told the Huffington Post that the debate would be postponed until the President’s address was over. He even suggested that Obama’s remarks would make the debate more significant: "This is effectively the first general election debate of the 2012 cycle," he said.
If further proof were needed that Boehner’s return punt was stronger than Obama’s, former House Speaker and current GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich offered this, via Twitter: “From one speaker to another… nicely done John.”
– Additional reporting by Anthony Crupi.