People say they’re fed up with politics, but they sure do watch the State of the Union

Story posted March 13, 2012 in News by Sarah Peters

As the State of the Union addresses grew in grandeur during the last several presidential administrations, the average number of households watching on TV also increased.

Based on Nielsen Co. data, on average, 32.5 million households have tuned in to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses. That’s up from an average of 31.7 million households for former President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speeches. Former President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses garnered the attention of an average of 30.8 million American households, based on Nielsen ratings.

Michael Hogan, liberal arts research professor and Center for Democratic Deliberation director, said former President Ronald Reagan helped make the annual speeches into more of a media event by inviting everyday heroes to sit in the gallery and recognizing them during his speeches. Hogan said there’s more anticipation leading up to State of the Union addresses that are more of a spectacle, which may explain the increase in the average number of households watching. 

He also said the speech becomes the “centerpiece” of the presidential agenda for the next year.

"It’s more of a significant political event than it used to be in the pre-Reagan era," Hogan said.

Colleen Kelley, associate professor of rhetoric communication at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College, said the increase could be related to the ailing economy. Kelley said the drama surrounding the addresses is more participatory for the American public now than it was before they aired live on TV, but the uptick in the average number of households viewing the speeches is more likely associated with the issues the country is facing.

Kelley said more people want to hear from the president when the economy is bad.

“People are watching more, because they are more interested in finding out what’s going to make them feel better,” Kelley said. “Other than that, I think the State of the Union is considered to be a routine that is considered mostly ceremony.”

Each president has had fewer actual households viewing his last State of the Union address than his first. Clinton had 41.2 million households watching his first address and 22.5 million watching his last. Bush started his presidency with 28.2 million households watching his State of the Union address and ended with 27.7 million. Obama had the attention of 37.2 million households for his first State of the Union address and had the attention of 27.6 million households for his most recent address in January.

Ordinarily, the State of the Union address is a “cheerleading session” for what the president’s administration accomplished in the last year, Kelley said. She said the addresses give the president the opportunity to send the message that he’s taking care of the American people.

Nichola Gutgold, associate professor of communication at Penn State Lehigh Valley, said the rise in average number of households watching the speeches displays an engaged voting public.

“It shows interest and not apathy in our political process,” she said.