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July 19, 2000 Contact: Melissa Ring (617) 496-9761

Convention Audiences Likely to Drop from 1996 Level

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The television audience for the national party conventions has declined in size in recent elections, and preliminary indicators suggest a further drop in 2000.

In the most recent weekly Shorenstein Center national poll, 43% of registered voters said they did not plan to watch any of the GOP convention and 38% said the same of the Democratic convention. When an identical question was asked in 1996 in a Yankelovich Partners poll, the corresponding figures were 23% and 21%. "The large difference in the 1996 and 2000 polls, and other indicators of public interest in this year's campaign, point toward a smaller audience for this year's party conventions," says Tami Buhr, research coordinator of the Vanishing Voter Project, for which the poll was conducted.

The national conventions once had a substantial television audience. In 1976, a peak year, the conventions had an average rating of 28 points, meaning that 28% of all households with television were watching the convention on one of the major networks in the average broadcast minute. The average household also watched more than 11 hours of convention coverage. In 1996, the rating was 17 the lowest rating yet recorded and the average household watched fewer than 4 hours. The 2000 conventions will likely set new lows.

  Voter Involvement Index
July 12-16 22%
July 5-9 21%
June 28-July 2 25%
June 21-25 28%
June 14-19 19%
June 7-11 21%
May 31-June 4 20%
May 24-28 21%
Source: Shorenstein Center Poll
Sampling error: ±6%

The shrinking audience for televised conventions is part of a general decline in attention to network news and public affairs programming. In 1976, the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts had a combined rating of 35 points. By 1996, that had fallen to 24 points, and has declined further since then. During this period, the expansion of cable television increased the programming choices of viewers, and news and public affairs programs were among those hardest hit by the change. In relative terms, the decline in the convention audience is nearly identical to the decline in the network evening news audience. "The difference between the 1996 and the 2000 polls strongly suggests fewer Americans will be watching the conventions, just as fewer Americans have been watching serious news programs in general," says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and the Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington Office. "This is consistent with a growing and continuing disconnect between the people and democratic politics and process."

The convention audiences in 2000 will still be sizeable in terms of absolute numbers. In an average broadcast minute, there are likely to be 12 million or so households tuned to the conventions, and at least half of the adult population more than 100 million Americans will watch at least part of a party convention. This may rival the audience for the much-ballyhooed summer Olympics. In past years, the party conventions and the summer Olympics have drawn audiences of similar size. "It's getting harder and harder for any one program to draw a huge audience because there are so many choices available to the viewer," says Thomas Patterson, director of the Shorenstein Center poll and Bradlee Professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "The effect is particularly pronounced in the realm of public affairs. In an earlier age, millions of Americans often came together at one time to watch a political event. Now it happens much less often."

The results reported here are from nationwide telephone surveys of approximately 1,000 adults conducted November 14, 1999 July 16, 2000. The surveys have a sampling error of ±3%. The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.

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