Donald Trump's RNC Nears End With Strong Ratings — But No Records

Three days in, an average 22 million viewers have tuned into primetime coverage of the convention.
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Donald Trump

Between Monday and Wednesday night, an average 22 million viewers have been tuning into primetime coverage of Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

The Nielsen Media aggregate of eight ad-supported networks is strong, for sure, but the matter of just how strong depends on who you ask — and what you're comparing it to. Multiple news outlets, notably Fox News Channel, CNN and NBC News, have all got to be finding great pleasure in their respective showings for the week. Each of the networks are among those tracking better than 2012 and, by some measurements, even 2008. But the overall consumption narrative of the RNC thus far lacks the excitement and records many had forecast when it became clear the 2016 meeting would nominate (or at least highlight) Donald Trump.

Trump has been ratings bait since the August 2015 GOP debate on Fox News lit previous cable ratings records on fire with 24 million viewers. That statistic was never duplicated during the debate blitz that followed, but interest remained uncharacteristically high. And the entire circus has been compelling enough to keep TV news ratings, broadcast and cable, up from 2015. Trump's apparent influence on ratings in the long, long run-up to the November election has been lost on no one, particularly himself, and he voiced confidence that it would carry over to the convention.

Thursday's finale, which will culminate in Trump speaking to accept his party's nomination, will really have to comparatively pop to even approach past records. Networks are keen to point to gains from 2012, but a much more appropriate measuring stick is 2008. Fevered interest lifted ratings for both parties that year. It also was the last time the U.S. had a presidential race without an incumbent.

And 2008 certainly benefited from more buzz around the speakers. Sarah Palin's speech, which took place just days after she was introduced to an overwhelmingly unfamiliar nation, reached an audience of nearly 37 million home viewers. That number was outdone just 24 hours later by running mate John McCain. Trump vice presidential pick Mike Pence pulled about 23.4 million on Wednesday night.

Over the course of three nights, 2008 averaged nearly 33 million viewers. Looking at 2012, the GOP averaged 24.8 million viewers. To be sure, people watched TV quite differently eight years ago, or even five years ago — just look at CNN's boosted digital reach, up a significant 324 percent from 2008 — but live events remain linear TV's domain.

For Trump to outperform McCain's comparable showing in 2008, the networks will have to deliver a combined total of nearly 40 million viewers. (That number was only a hair north of Barack Obama's speech the week before). Besting 2012 numbers is a much easier task, though those figures are still well north of the RNC performance thus far. A total 30.3 million viewers tuned into watch Mitt Romney that year.

Regardless of what ratings the RNC finale brings, the upcoming debates between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton seem poised to have a more considerable pull. But his status as a ratings draw has been one of Trump's most consistent talking points since the start of the campaign. To really deliver on that promise, his solo moment will have to be just as much of a spectacle as his sparring.
 

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