Around 40 million viewers tuned in for President Trump’s much-hyped immigration speech, a solid but not all that spectacular Nielsen performance for the ratings-analyst-in-chief. While that’s a very big audience by any definition — it easily beat the 32.1 million who saw then-president Barack Obama outline his health plan in 2009 — Trump snagged 46 million viewers for his much (much) longer State of the Union address last year. Thanks to a massive lead-in from heartland hit NCIS, it appears CBS gave Trump his biggest audience: Per Nielsen data supplied to Vulture from two different networks, 8.09 million viewers watched the Eye’s 9–9:30 p.m. special report featuring Trump’s speech and the response from Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Fox News Channel virtually tied the Eye, averaging 8.04 million in the same half-hour, while NBC was close behind with 7.4 million (2.8 million of whom were in the key news demo of adults under 55, more than any TV network Tuesday). As for ABC, it brought in 5.46 million for a 20-minute special report (9–9:20 p.m.) on the dueling speeches. Back on cable, MSNBC notched 4.25 million in the 9–9:30 p.m. half-hour and CNN averaged 3.58 million during the same time period. And finally, Fox Broadcasting’s 20-minute special was seen by an additional 2.96 million. That all adds up to 39.6 million viewers, with a few million more likely to be added to the total once Nielsen releases data from PBS and other smaller networks which carried the speeches.
Some reports earlier today trumpeted the notion that the Democratic response had a bigger audience, but fact-checkers would likely rate that idea half-true. Nielsen has released quarter-hour data showing CNN and MSNBC did better in the 9:15–9:30 p.m. half-hour in which the Democrats spoke, but they wrapped up just after 9:20 p.m., meaning that 15-minute frame also includes post-speech analysis. (Conversely, the 9–9:15 p.m. numbers include about 30 seconds of the Dem speech.) What’s more, Fox News had around 500,000 more viewers at the start of the 9 p.m. hour than between 9:15–9:30 p.m., and official, national quarter-hour averages for the broadcast networks weren’t immediately available. (Nielsen may yet release the exact breakdown, but the ratings giant hadn’t done so as of late Wednesday.)
What is true is that last night’s speech gave a big boost to cable news anchors. MSNBC decided to label its 9:12–10 p.m. broadcast a special edition of The Rachel Maddow Show, and the result was the most-watched episode in that show’s history (4.36 million viewers). Likewise, Fox’s Hannity held on to most of the Trump speech audience, notching a massive 7.1 million viewers for the full 9–10 p.m. hour. Hannity actually beat every other network on TV (including the broadcast nets’s entertainment shows) during the 9 p.m. hour.