Saturday, August 30, 2008

Beyond Entertainment

If there was little to be gained from the AT&T Yahoo! excuse for a "ratings poll" for Barack Obama's speech on Thursday night, Brian Stelter and Jim Rutenberg, writing for The New York Times, have tapped into a far more interesting set of number, that old standby metric of quality (or whatever), the television ratings:

At least 40 million Americans watched Senator Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination for president Thursday night, a record for convention viewership that exceeded even the expectations of his aides.

The historic speech by the first African-American presidential nominee of a major political party reached 38.4 million viewers on 10 broadcast and cable networks, Nielsen Media Research said Friday. PBS estimated that an additional 3.5 million had watched its prime-time coverage.

The ratings dwarfed the audience for the Summer Olympics and the season finale of “American Idol” in May, and added to what was already a sense of buoyancy within the Obama campaign that the night had gone better than planned.

As I see it, these numbers are far more than an affirmation of Obama's "celebrity status" (as Truthdig seems to have implied). Rather, it is evidence that, given the opportunity, the American electorate can and will use their television sets for more than the usual diet of trivia. After all, given what television has become, it is not as if these viewers had no choice. As we read the details in the Stelter-Rutenberg report, we see that over 15 million of them were watching cable channels and therefore had any number of ways to avoid anything connected with the Convention. No, people were watching Obama because they wanted to hear what he had to say; and "by the numbers" hearing what he had to say was more important than the entertainment value of either the Summer Olympics or (shudder!) American Idol. Here is another item from the Stelter-Rutenberg analysis from that entertainment value perspective:

Mr. Obama’s speech drew an especially high number of African-American viewers. Excluding sporting events, Nielsen said, the speech ranked second in black viewership among all programs over the last decade. Only a Michael Jackson special in 2001 did better.

Personally, I would have liked to see the numbers without excluding those sporting events. They may have been less impressive; but, taken in the proper context, they probably would have been just as significant!

The primary lesson here may well be that, whatever Internet evangelists choose to preach, television is still America's "window on the world." The question overlooked, however, is how often how many Americans actually want to look through that window. My own opinion is that they currently want to look through the window because they know how bad things are and they are really looking for someone who is going to do something other than try to sell them yet another bill of shoddy goods. They are all in the same boat as the bubeleh in Hester Street who finally talks back to the fast-talker and says, "You can't piss up my back and tell me its rain!" For that matter they don't even want to hear Bill Clinton talking about sharing their pain. Rather, they are an audience that has discovered that, after eight years (if not more) of pap, they are finally caving in under malnutrition, which is why the first adjective that came to mind in my own analysis of Obama's speech was "solid."

Obama connected with 40 million American television viewers. That is approximately one-third of the number of people who voted in the 2004 presidential election; but it would not surprise me if not all of those viewers actually voted in 2004. Perhaps a torch really is being passed. We have known that television matters since the days of John Kennedy's campaign; but in the 21st century television (along with most other media) has been used primarily for negative influence by Karl Rove and his disciples. Now we have a candidate who has demonstrated the value of using it positively; and I, for one, will be watching to see if the strength of that demonstration can be maintained until Election Day.

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