It’s no secret President Donald Trump is obsessed with measuring things: hand size, public opinion, inaugural crowds and, perhaps most of all, TV ratings. As host of The Apprentice, he would pester NBC PR executives —and sometimes reporters — over every Nielsen decimal point. When The New Celebrity Apprentice debuted earlier this month, he took to Twitter to knock new host Arnold Schwarzenegger for drawing a smaller crowd. And this weekend, both Trump and his new press secretary, Sean Spicer, went overboard touting the supposedly huge ratings for Friday’s swearing-in. Spicer reiterated the claim Monday during his first official White House briefing: “Sure, it was the most-watched inaugural,” he claimed, saying tens of millions of people watched online in addition to the 30.6 million who watched on TV. “I’d love to see any information that proves otherwise.” Well, since you asked, Mr. Spicer, there’s actually plenty of data that suggests the administration’s claim is false. What’s more, by at least one important metric, Trump’s inauguration was actually one of the least successful such ceremonies in modern times.
First, let’s look at Spicer’s dubious assertion today that Friday’s event had the “total largest audience” of any inauguration. The press secretary argued that the Nielsen stats issued Saturday wildly underestimated the actual viewership of Trump’s oath-taking, speech, and related ceremonies. He then said that CNN alone reported nearly 17 million people had streamed the inaugural via the network’s website and apps. Just one problem: CNN said no such thing. What the network’s media relations department reported Saturday was that, throughout the day, its various digital products received 16.9 million video starts for the entire day Friday (and not just during inaugural coverage). A video start is nowhere near the same thing as a “viewer,” since if one person opens up the CNN livestream ten times throughout the day, that counts as ten starts (which, per Spicer’s reasoning, becomes ten viewers). Spicer tried to add 17 million “viewers” to Trump’s ratings, but the statistic he used proves no such thing.
This is not to say that Nielsen fully captured the audience for Trump’s big day. We obviously live in a time when more and more viewing is taking place outside the traditional TV ecosystem, and is thus not accounted for by old-school ratings. CNN, for instance, also noted in its ratings release that, a few minutes into Trump’s speech, at 12:15 p.m., its stream logged an unduplicated audience of 2.3 million, tying a record set on Election Night 2016. That’s well below Spicer’s 17 million figure and, what’s more, still not a number that can simply be added to the roughly 31 million Nielsen audience. The ratings giant’s stat measured average audience through the late morning and afternoon Friday, counting folks who watched for more than a few minutes. CNN’s 2.3 million was simply a peak for one minute. It’s not unreasonable to assume that, counting CNN and other outlets, a couple million people watched the inauguration online. But Spicer is almost certainly wrong to assume that figure is anywhere massive enough to make up the difference between Trump’s 30.6 million Nielsen-measured audience and the 41.8 million who tuned in for Ronald Reagan’s 1981 swearing in or even Obama’s TV audience of 37.8 million. (In the case of Obama, don’t forget his ceremony was widely streamed as well, at a time when both YouTube and iPhones were around. While streaming is much more popular now than eight years ago, Nielsen didn’t fully measure Obama’s total audience, either.) As much as Spicer would like to use CNN video starts to pump up his boss’ ratings, “Nielsen TV ratings and digital ratings are unfortunately apples and oranges,” as one cable news digital-division insider told Vulture. “There is no way to compare them in similar metrics.”
Meanwhile, Spicer isn’t alone in drawing some questionable conclusions about Trump’s Friday crowds. Much was made over the weekend by numerous media outlets about the significance of the 30.6 million figure released by Nielsen, with many comparing it to viewership tallies for past ceremonies — as we just did in the paragraph above. On one level, there’s nothing factually incorrect with noting Trump’s audience of 30.6 million was 10 million below that of Reagan or a million viewers more than Bill Clinton’s 1993 oath-taking. But it can also be wildly misleading, for one simple reason: population growth. Much the same way inflation renders dollar-for-dollar box-office comparisons between, say, Gone With the Wind and Rogue One irrelevant — movie tickets could be had for under $1 back in 1939 — it borders on nonsensical to compare TV audiences from different decades. When Reagan took office in 1981, the U.S population was right around 229 million; today, America boasts just under 325 million residents. Accounting for that roughly 30 percent population growth since 1981, Reagan’s audience would be closer to 55 million.
Nielsen actually has a system in place to more accurately compare the relative popularity of TV programs (or events) from different eras: the household rating. Since the 1950s, the measurement giant has been recording what percentage of TV homes watch various broadcasts — the storied Nielsen “rating.” If a show gets a 20 rating, that means 20 percent of American homes with TV sets watched, whether the program aired in 1977 or 2017. Media outlets (and networks) tend to use total viewers these days because it’s an easier concept to grasp, and that’s fine — as long as you’re talking about shows airing the same season (or even within a couple years). But when dealing with historical events such as series finales, political conventions, and, yes, inaugurations, the household rating is the fairest and most accurate way of drawing comparisons. And by that score, Trump’s inaugural was decidedly unimpressive.
Per Nielsen, all-day coverage of Friday’s ceremonies notched a 20.1 household rating. While that number beats the last inaugural (14.0 for Obama’s 2013 event), second inaugurals have historically been dramatically lower rated than the initial swearings-in. (There’s little drama in seeing an established POTUS doing everything over.) If you look just at first inaugurals, Trump’s 20.1 actually puts him behind every new president since 1969, save one — George H.W. Bush. The first President Bush notched a 20.0 rating when he took the oath in 1989. His son, George W. Bush, however, did beat Trump’s ratings, notching a 20.8 in 2001, while Bill Clinton snagged a 24.5 rating in 1993. Obama did about 25 percent (25.5), while Richard Nixon (33.5) and even Jimmy Carter (31.5) began their terms with more love from TV audiences. Where Trump really looks minuscule, however, is in comparison to the man he calls his role model, Ronald Reagan. In 1981, the Gipper’s D.C. debut notched a massive 37.4 rating — almost double the percentage of TV homes as Trump. Bottom line: Regardless of how Spicer and the Trump administration want to spin the numbers, or play cute with language, all available evidence — and common sense — suggest Trump’s inauguration fell far short of being an historical juggernaut.