TV Ratings: Trump Inauguration Sinks 18 Percent From Obama's in 2009

Wall-to-wall coverage of the extensive festivities reached an average 30.6 million total viewers.
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Donald Trump

Throughout his candidacy, Donald Trump prided himself on his ability to draw a TV audience as he sparred with others during debates. Now, as president, we'll see if the hot streak continues when he's just talking to the camera.

The executive producer of The Apprentice was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Friday afternoon. Wall-to-wall coverage of the extensive festivities reached an average 30.6 million total viewers across the 12 broadcast and cable networks that went live for much of the day. That's 18 percent down from the nearly 38 million viewers who watched President Barack Obama being sworn in as No. 44 in 2009.

After taking the oath with his hand on the Bible, Trump addressed the crowd. He spoke of how the "forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer" and of making America many different varieties of adjective again.

Among individual networks, Fox News Channel led with its coverage of the GOP leader. (It was also the only network up from 2009.) NBC News finished No. 2 and topped all of the broadcast set.

Topping 2009 was a lofty goal, but beating the most recent inauguration was easy. Second-term festivities, quite predictably, never have as much appeal as the first go around. And 2013 saw Obama average 20.6 million viewers (the most for a second swearing-in since Bill Clinton's in 1997). First-term comparisons are considerably more competitive. The 2009 inauguration saw an average 37.8 million viewers watch between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET, with an estimated 25.5 percent of U.S. households watching. Ronald Reagan, the last entertainer-turned-politician to take the highest office, did so with 41.8 million viewers tuned in — and a whopping 37.4 percent of households.

From the 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. window, cable net averages from CNN, MSNBC and Fox News sat at 16.63 million total viewers.

Inaugurations have always been marquee TV events, though sometimes not as much as some of the campaign events — debates and conventions, most notably — that lead up to them. The 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush averaged 29 million viewers. The first term of Clinton's presidency started out with 29.7 million viewers for his 1993 swearing-in. George H. W. Bush's was more modest, with 23.3 million viewers, in 1989. And Jimmy Carter, another one-termer, reached 34 million viewers.

One factor to consider when comparing 2017 to 2009 is the rise of streaming over the last eight years. Trump's inauguration likely got a substantial lift from digital views, albeit one that could not nearly compensate for the overall losses from Obama's nearly record-setting ceremony.

On the ground, Trump seemed to be a considerably smaller draw than Obama was eight years ago. Though there have been no official statistics on inauguration attendance, aerial shots of the National Mall show swaths of empty space where an estimated 2 million crowded in 2009. 

Trump heads into office with historically low approval ratings, just 40 percent favorability, per the Washington Post and ABC News. Still, there isn't as much of a correlation between pre-inauguration approval and the number of people who watched as one might think. Yes, Obama and Carter pulled their strong inauguration ratings on the heels of historically high approval ratings — 79 percent for Obama and 78 percent for Carter — but inauguration record-setter Reagan's approval was relatively low at the start of his two terms. His was given favorable marks by just 58 percent of polled Americans.

Early indicators for Trump festivities were modest. Thursday's inauguration eve concert, headlined by the band 3 Doors Down and "Who's Your Daddy?" singer Toby Keith, grossed 6.6 million viewers across the three cable news networks carrying it. Fox News Channel viewers were the most keen, accounting for 4.5 million of the total audience.

It also should be remembered that Trump was not the only object of coverage on Friday. Adjacent protests, a ramp-up to Saturday's Women's March on Washington, were frequently showcased during the traditional Inauguration Day pomp and circumstance.

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