Speech also flopped in ratings

Published May 26, 2004 2:30PM (EDT)

White House aides hoping to launch a new communications strategy -- and calm jitters among voters -- with President Bush's "everything's-going-to-work-out-fine-in-Iraq" primetime address Monday night ran into a slight logistical problem; the speech was a television ratings flop, attracting just 6.2 million viewers. That's 35 million fewer than tuned into Bush's primetime press conference last month, and 56 million fewer than watched his 2003 State of the Union address. But that's what happens when you get relegated to cable.

Monday's address was not carried by the broadcast networks for the simple reason the White House did not request the time. If it had, the networks probably would have obliged. (Asking for network airtime is sort of like prom season, you don't really want to pop the question unless you're sure of the answer in advance.) But the nets wouldn't have been happy about making room for Bush, at least not the ad sales guys. Finishing up the crucial spring sweeps period when all-important advertising rates are set, the networks were likely in no mood for a 45-minute primetime preemption Monday night, and the White House certainly understood that, which may have been one reason they shied away. (Why antagonize the media during the middle of a downward polling trend?)

It's also possible that the White House, understanding Bush was not going to unveil any new policy initiatives during the address, was concerned about a backlash if the speech was hyped too much and network airtime was requested, only to have the president essentially reiterate the same talking points he's been saying for months. (Working as allies, we will defend Iraq and defeat these enemies.) The good news for the White House is it may have benefited from the extensive, ripple effects news coverage the speech produced. The bad news is if Bush-Cheney '04 was trying to win over hearts and minds about Iraq Monday night, so few people watched the speech that it was likely a bust in the electoral column, or a way to stop the eroding poll numbers.

And make no mistake, television viewers had an almost allergic reaction to the speech and stayed away in droves. What's interesting is that even within the confines of the cable news universe -- CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC -- TV viewership for Bush's Monday speech was down 25 percent compared to his April 13 press conference. During that telecast, approximately 8.1 million viewers watched Bush via cable. (An additional 32 million watched it on the networks.) On Monday night though, just 6.2 million viewers bothered to tune in, even though cable was the only commercial TV outlet for the address.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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