That’s a difficult question to answer, mainly because it’s like comparing two different planets.
But it’s an important one, if we are to get some gauge as to whether Americans are becoming less engaged politically.
Let’s compare today to 1956. In some ways, that’s a good comparison year because it featured an incumbent running against a staid challenger. (On the other hand, it might not be a good comparison because the economy was much better in 1956.)
That year, the New York Times reported that the television audience for the political conventions was average. That’s an interesting assessment, considering 1952 had been the only other year in which a substantial number of Americans had access to TV, and the number of sets had increased dramatically in the intervening four years. Average is hard to calculate with only two samples.
| || |
There was considerable confusion in 1956 about exactly how many people were watching. Trendex and Sindlinger, two research companies, were giving different figures. But in a story published Aug. 28, 1956, CBS calculated “the average audience watching the politicians at any given moment constituted about one-fourth or one-fifth of all TV homes,” which was roughly 30 million viewers.
Remember, in those days networks covered hour upon hour of the conventions, starting in early afternoon and going through the evening hours.
Interestingly, Broadcast Magazine in 1956 said the public didn’t want that much coverage. “The ratings of both convention prove this,” it said. “Important keynote addresses, yes, Balloting on nominations, yes. But the sameness of artificially stimulated demonstrations and dull-as-dishwater speeches drives audiences away.”
My guess is people today feel about the same as their parents or grandparents did then, despite how popular it is to complain that networks ought to provide more coverage.
This week, news services reported that Nielsen Media Research found 20 million Americans watched on Tuesday night when Ann Romney spoke. Following the advice of Broadcast Week in 1956, networks are providing only one hour of coverage a night.
But that’s an old-fashioned way of looking at it. Americans have many more choices today. People are following on Twitter, Facebook and on YouTube channels, including the GOP’s own live-streaming channel, which Reuters says attracted 292,000 views from Monday through Wednesday this week. The Twitter Political Index can measure how people feel about speakers as they speak. Cable news networks are providing their own coverage with their own political slants.
Certainly, 20 million regular TV viewers today is far less than 30 million in 1956, when fewer Americans walked the continent. But it’s much harder to know exactly how many people today are tuned in using various Information Age devices. Back then you had only a few station choices, or you could do yard work or read a book.
A much better question is whether the viewing audience today is more or less politically open-minded than in the past — or are people tuning into the channels and connecting on social media only with those who are guaranteed to reinforce their own biases?
That, perhaps more than apathy, may be the biggest challenge for the republic in this age.