Almost 27 million people watched President Biden’s first official address at a joint congressional session on Wednesday evening, to a large television audience these days but a much smaller audience than similar speeches by other presidents, according to Nielsen’s data.
The speech, which aired on all major networks and cable news networks starting at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time, attracted a much larger television audience than the Oscars program, which aired on ABC on Sunday and was watched by approximately 10 million people. The audience, however, was significantly smaller than that for President Donald J. Trump’s first official address to Congress in 2017, which was attended by 48 million people.
The television audience for Mr. Biden’s address also lagged behind that for equivalent speeches from other recent presidents. Barack Obama had an audience of 52 million in 2009; George W. Bush pulled 40 million in 2001; and Bill Clinton’s first address was seen by 67 million in 1993.
Several factors contributed to the lower ratings. Due to public health and safety concerns at the Capitol, Mr. Biden’s speech came later in his presidency than that of his youngest predecessors, all of which took place in February. There was also less pomp on Wednesday. Instead of a personal audience of 1,600 Senators, Supreme Court justices, and other dignitaries who sat on the cheek with members of the House of Representatives, only 200 people were in attendance due to socially distant restrictions.
TV audience ratings have generally declined in recent years as more people have canceled cable subscriptions in favor of streaming, a shift accelerated by pandemic viewing habits. And the number of people watching TV in spring tends to be lower compared to winter.
According to Nielsen, ABC had the largest audience for the address at around 4 million viewers, and MSNBC was right behind at 3.9 million. Fox News and the Fox Broadcasting Networks had the smallest audience with 2.9 million viewers (Fox News) and 1.6 million viewers (Fox Broadcast).
The Fox audience stepped in for post-anchor analysis and commentators and the Republican counter-argument from South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. In the 30 minutes following the address, Fox News was the only network with an increase in viewership, averaging 3.2 million viewers.
The analysis of the language was different depending on the network. Fox News agent Ben Domenech called Mr. Biden’s speech a “handkerchief of lies”. On MSNBC, anchor Brian Williams referred to it as “Rooseveltian in size and girth”.