There’s a High Bar for Trump’s Inauguration to Beat Previous TV Ratings

Nearly 42 million watched Reagan's first swearing-in

Ratings are the currency of TV, and President-elect Donald Trump knows it.

A TV star for the past decade and a publicity aficionado long before that, Trump, during his presidential campaign, based his cultural relevance largely on Nielsen numbers. The higher the ratings, the better he was doing. In fact, his fascination with ratings is rivaled only by the most passionate of network executives.

Trump has been known to use Twitter to boast when programs or networks he's involved with deliver strong ratings.

The president-elect has also been known to gloat when programs he's not directly involved with struggle or when he's portrayed in what he believes to be a negative light.



The first general election debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton set television ratings records. The 84 million who tuned in on Sept. 26, 2016 made it the most-watched televised presidential debate in U.S. TV history. In fact, the three presidential and one vice presidential debate combined to deliver 259 million viewers, making 2016 the most-watched presidential debate cycle ever.

Those debates all aired in prime time. Friday's inauguration will take place in the afternoon, not a time that's typically conducive to mass television viewing. It's unlikely Inauguration Day ratings will approach those prime-time debate ratings, but when it comes to this president-elect, you never know. 

Now that Trump has the stage all to himself, will Friday's festivities set Inauguration Day ratings records? And will some of his fellow Americans follow through with a TV boycott?

According to Nielsen data, 20.6 million people tuned in to watch President Obama's second inauguration on Jan. 21, 2013. While coverage varied by network, 18 networks aired live coverage from approximately 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. ET.

A combined 6.7 million watched Obama take the oath of office and give his address across the big three cable news networks—CNN, Fox News and MSNBC—from 11:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. ET. 

That Jan. 21, happened to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday that in theory makes it easier to attract people to their TVs in the middle of the day. Trump doesn't have that luxury.

Obama's first inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009 drew a total of 37.8 million viewers, making it the most-watched inauguration since another celebrity-turned-politician took the oath of office. Ronald Reagan's first inauguration drew 41.8 million total TV viewers on Jan. 20, 1981.

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