Anyone surprised that ABC News’ Sunday night hour-long prime-time special featuring Donald Trump was something of a ratings debacle has been badly misled by the Beltway press, which for years has been pushing a GOP-friendly myth that the president translates into huge ratings, and that Americans can’t get enough of his antics. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, as ABC’s President Trump: 30 Hours confirmed over the weekend. The interview special came in third place among the three major networks on Sunday at 8 PM ET. Worse, the show produced just half the television audience that ABC’s Celebrity Family Feud attracted in the same time slot one week earlier. The idea that Trump represents some sort of cultural phenomenon and that Americans flock to their TVs every time he appears in front of a camera is simply nonsense.
Why ABC thought Trump deserved an hour of prime-time exposure was never really explained in the special. Meaning, there was no news hook for the unusual programming event, which featured ABC’s George Stephanopoulos shadowing Trump over the course of two days last week. (And … ?) Of course, Trump lied relentlessly throughout the televised interviews. So, no, not exactly compelling television.
We’ve seen Trump flop on TV before, over and over. Last year, when he sat down for a 60 Minutes interview, he garnered an audience one-half of the size that former adult-film actress Stormy Daniels landed when she was interviewed months earlier on the same show, where she detailed her sexual liaison with Trump and his campaign’s efforts to buy her silence in 2016. Also note that the audience for Trump’s 2017 60 Minutes interview was one-half the size of his 2016 60 Minutes interview, as nearly 10 million Americans who tuned in for Trump in 2016 tuned out in 2017.
In 2018, Trump’s first official State of the Union address drew a smaller audience than those of his two predecessors—Trump drew 40 million viewers, compared to the 48 million who tuned in to watch President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union. It gets worse. When Trump sat down for a pre-Super Bowl interview in 2017, the audience was 12 million viewers. When Obama did the same thing in 2009, 22 million people watched. In 2017, when Trump turned his announcement of a Supreme Court nominee into a prime-time production, 33 million people watched. By contrast, Obama’s first prime-time event of his presidency was a press conference he held on the night of February 4, 2009, when nearly 50 million Americans watched.
Trump’s tepid Nielsen numbers are bad news for the president, since he’s utterly obsessed with television ratings. For years, he has turned to ratings as a way to both validate himself and undercut his foes. Trump loves to push the media myth that news ratings often skyrocket thanks to him. Trump once claimed that when he appeared on Fox News Sunday in November 2018, the show landed 9.2 million viewers. In truth, 1.7 million tuned in. The simple fact is that whatever ratings bump Trump may have provided via the 2016 campaign has long since dissipated: CNN’s ratings in 2018 were down 9% from the year before.
Still, this notion that Trump is a wildly charismatic and captivating figure has been embraced by the political press, which still often views him through the prism of celebrity, and, frankly, judges him as a celebrity. But there’s simply no proof to support the idea that Americans hang on Trump’s every word. In fact, there’s plenty of TV ratings data—not to mention polling results—that suggests a huge portion of Americans have completely tuned Trump out. What’s left are Trump’s hardcore loyalists and members of the press. Both groups seem convinced he’s a media superstar.
The press too often buys into the myth that Trump is a master media manipulator and a once-in-a-generation communicator. Give me a break. Trump’s been pushing the idea of a wall along the southern U.S. border every month for the last 48 months, and he probably has convinced three people in this country that it’s a good idea. (According to polling over the last four years, he has convinced lots of people it’s a bad idea.) Fact: As the consistently least popular president in modern American history, Trump has trouble connecting with the masses.
But journalists like to tell a different tale. Early in his presidency, The New York Times pushed the idea that Trump White House press briefings had become must-see TV and that cable news ratings spiked every time then-press secretary Sean Spicer stepped to the podium. But it simply wasn’t true. Cable news ratings barely budged for the briefings.
More and more Americans are just tuning Trump out—something ABC News learned the hard way.