Election 2020

Americans Rightly Tune Out the Democratic National Convention

Compared to 2016, fewer people are watching on broadcast and cable TV because they know a dull infomercial when they see one.


In a presidential election in which a record-high percentage of Americans (25 percent overall, including 37 percent of independents) agree that neither major-party candidate "would make a good president," it makes sense that traditional viewership for the Democratic National Convention (DNC) is tanking. The shift to an all-online convention, including a high number of pre-taped speeches, certainly hasn't done anything for the intensity of audience engagement.

According to the ratings service Nielsen, the first night of the DNC pulled about 19.7 million viewers across broadcast and cable stations, down from 26 million viewers in 2016. The second night of the convention had about 19.2 million watchers, down from about 25 million four years ago. Nielsen hasn't released ratings for last night yet.

A spokesman for Joe Biden, TJ Ducklo, tweeted triumphantly after the first night that "28.9 million Americans tuned in to @DemConvention last night across TV & digital platforms, up from 2016 & shattering the previous record for digital streams, which totaled 10.2m even as numbers still come in." But Duckclo didn't include any source for his estimate of digital viewership, leading NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik to ask, "Where are you deriving streaming figures from?" No answer was forthcoming.

Apart from partisan hype, measuring the online audience is no simple matter. It is surely higher than in 2016, but it's far from clear that its growth would more than cover the decline in cable and broadcast watching. CNN Digital, which tracks audience on that channel's multimedia desktop site and mobile apps, reports that "digital multiplatform unique visitors and video starts are up 38% and 19% versus the second day of the 2016 DNC." But the channel also said that just "53k users live stream[ed] the average minute of the convention programming from 9-11p.m. (equivalent to the way TV ratings are calculated). Digital average audience was up +6% from day 2 of the conventions in 2016."

A 6 percent increase in digital average audience and 53,000 people livestreaming the DNC during its peak time are nothing to write home about, even if you multiply such figures out over other platforms and sites. With historically low levels of enthusiasm for either the Republican or Democratic candidate, the Biden campaign's claim to record viewership is highly dubious. 

The national conventions long ago stopped being a place where any real news might happen or where unscripted events would reveal something authentic or telling. The shift to online-only underscores the reality that the DNC and RNC are infomercials pitched to the parties' bases rather than events designed to reach out to uncommitted voters. The rest of us will simply have to bide our time for a more substantive discussion of the country's uncertain future. It's not clear when or whether we'll have presidential debates but if we do, they will certainly go a long way to settling questions about the mental acuity of Trump and Biden. And they might actually put some electricity into an election surprisingly devoid of energy despite the hyperbolic rhetoric of partisans declaring it (yet again!) as the most-important election in our lifetime.