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A Tale of Three Television Audiences

The broadcast television rating for the 2000 GOP convention was 11.9 points on average. Four years earlier, the Republican convention averaged 16.9 rating points, which was down from 21.3 rating points in 1992.

Television ratings indicate the size of a program's viewing audience. They do not reveal the length of time that individual viewers tuned to the telecast, why they tuned in, or how they responded to what they saw. This information can be obtained through surveys like the one we conducted during the week of the GOP convention. Our survey tells a tale of three television audiences: those viewers who sought out convention coverage (deliberate viewers), those who happened across it while watching television and decided to watch some of it (inadvertent viewers), and those who chose to not to watch the convention at all (non-viewers).

Deliberate Viewers

  Table 1: How much of the convention did you watch?
Amount Watched Inadvertent Deliberate
A few minutes 50% 14%
Half an hour 32% 12%
An hour 16% 24%
More than an hour 2% 50%
Source: Vanishing Voter Poll, Aug. 1-6, 2000.

About half of the survey respondents who watched at least part of the GOP convention on any given night turned on their television sets with the intention of watching all or part of a convention telecast. On average, they watched the convention for a longer period than those viewers who just happened to come across the convention while watching television (see Table 1). Nearly 75% of the deliberate viewers watched an hour or more of the evening's convention coverage compared with only 18% of inadvertent viewers.

Not surprisingly, deliberate viewers were disproportionately Republican in orientation. Self-identified Republicans comprised half of all such viewers with the other half split about evenly between self-identified Democrats and Independents.

  Table 2: Viewers by Age
  18-29 30-44 45-64 65+
Deliberate 6% 12% 19% 38%
Inadvertent 24% 19% 17% 20%
Non-viewers 71% 70% 64% 43%
Source: Vanishing Voter Poll, Aug. 1-6, 2000.

Age was even more closely associated with deliberate exposure to the convention (see Table 2). Adults who were 65 years-of-age or older were more than six times as likely as those under 30 years-of-age to be deliberate viewers. In fact, only 6% of the younger group were deliberate viewers.

Although younger adults have always been less likely to watch the conventions, the disparity has increased in recent elections.1 Adults who have entered the electorate during the past two decades are less interested in politics than their counterparts of earlier times. As they have become an increasingly larger part of the total electorate, turnout rates and other indicators of campaign participation, including convention viewing, have declined. There is no immediate reason to believe that the next wave of young eligible voters will break the trend, which suggests that the televised convention audience will continue to shrink in size.

Inadvertent Viewers

Each night of the Republican convention, roughly half of the audience consisted of inadvertent viewers-people who sat down at their television set, discovered that the convention was on, and then decided to watch at least part of it. They watched less coverage on average than did the deliberate viewers, but half of the inadvertent viewers claimed to have seen at least a half-hour of coverage.

It might be thought that, as television viewers became more accustomed to seeing the GOP convention on television and hearing about it in the news, inadvertent viewers would decline as a proportion of the convention audience. In fact, the inadvertent audience peaked on the convention's final night, accounting for 57% of the total audience that evening. One reason was the appeal of George W. Bush's acceptance speech. Viewers who happened to see Bush speaking were more inclined to stay tuned than those who tuned in at other points in the convention.

Another reason was that the three major over-the-air networks ABC, CBS, and NBC provided their most substantial coverage on the convention's final night. The inadvertent audience for any program, including a convention, is partly a function of the number of viewers who happen to encounter the program while watching television. Roughly a fourth of American households do not have cable or satellite television and thus rely on the over-the-air networks for their programs. In addition, most cable viewers include the networks among the channels they routinely monitor. Thus the likelihood that viewers will inadvertently see the convention increases significantly when the over-the-air networks are covering it.

  Table 3: Where did you watch?
  Inadvertent Deliberate
Major network 66% 40%
Cable news 21% 42%
Both network and cable 8% 14%
PBS / C-Span 5% 4%
Source: Vanishing Voter Poll, Aug. 1-6, 2000.

As Table 3 indicates, the broadcast networks are the key to capturing the attention of potential convention viewers. Although deliberate viewers were as likely to watch the convention on cable as on an over-the-air network, inadvertent viewers were three times as likely to watch it on a broadcast network.

The three major broadcast networks have cut their convention coverage substantially over the past few elections. From a total of 15 hours in 1992, the over-the-air commercial networks provided on average 12 hours in 1996 and will provide 8.5 hours this election year. These cuts have contributed to the decline in the convention audience. If the over-the-air networks continue to reduce their coverage, as they have suggested they will do, a further decline in the convention audience can be expected.

Non-Convention Viewers

On the typical night of the GOP convention, about half of the television viewing audience did not, at any time, watch even as little as a minute or two of the coverage. Many of them knew that the convention was being televised 52% of our survey respondents who were watching television but did not watch the GOP convention said they came across it at some point in the evening.

When viewers who did not watch the convention were asked why, the major reason beyond the customary ones politics "is boring" or "is meaningless" was that the convention lacked suspense and excitement.

Their response, too, suggests an uncertain future for the televised convention. The convention has become a showcase for the nominee rather than a deliberative gathering. Given the high probability that nominating races will be decided in the primaries and caucuses, this feature of the modern convention is likely to persist, even though it contributes to declining audience interest.

It should be noted, however, that viewers do not appear greatly troubled by the stylized features of today's convention. The mini-documentary and other glossy elements of the modern convention, which are a source of consternation to journalists, do not appear to grate on the television audience. When convention viewers were asked what they liked least about the telecast, they mentioned these aspects infrequently. What viewers seem to long for but do not get from the modern convention is a deliberative forum in which issue and candidate differences are debated and resolved.

A Tale of the Missing Audience >>

1. According to the National Election Study, for example, 82% of adults 65 years-of-age and older, compared with 48% of those under 30 years-of-age, watched at least part of the 1984 Republican convention on at least one night. The corresponding figures from the 2000 Vanishing Voter survey are 77% and 39%.

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