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Donald Trump has a well-documented and lengthy love affair with television ratings data, a habit that has not changed since he entered the White House in late January. According to an informal tally by The Hollywood Reporter of the president’s public appearances, campaign-style rallies, interviews with pool reporters, television interviews and tweets, Trump has mentioned ratings at least 24 times as president.
He began his presidency by bragging on Twitter about the television ratings for his inauguration and crediting Fox News for the network’s inauguration broadcast ratings. More recently, Trump has criticized the following institutions for what he sees as declining ratings: ESPN (“tanked”), the National Football League (“bad,” “way down”), NBC (“way down”), CNN (“way down,” “ratings challenged”) and the Primetime Emmy Awards (“bad,” “the worst ever”).
CNN’s public relations Twitter account has, on a few occasions, contested Trump’s claims about the networks ratings. “CNN just posted its most-watched second quarter in history,” CNN tweeted at him in response to a critical June 27 tweet about the network.
While Twitter is Trump’s platform of choice for commenting on television ratings, he also has discussed ratings at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, at an August press conference with the president of Finland and, on Monday, at a hastily scheduled press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The president has complimented Fox News on the network’s ratings on multiple occasions, including an Oct. 11 interview with 9 p.m. host Sean Hannity. “You know, I am a ratings person. You notice, I always talk … ” Trump said to a cheering crowd in Pennsylvania. “Has anyone seen his ratings? What you are doing to your competition is incredible. No. 1, and I’m very proud of you.”
President Trump even threw departing press secretary Sean Spicer a cookie, pointing out in an official White House statement in July that Spicer gets “great television ratings.” (Spicer and current White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not respond to a request for comment, and former Trump campaign communications leader Jason Miller said he doesn’t have any inside intel to provide about his former boss’ ratings obsession.)
While Trump has drawn attention recently for arguing that the NFL is suffering from poor ratings because players are kneeling during the national anthem (to protest racial inequality), he actually has a lengthy history of criticizing the league’s performance. On a particular day in October 2014, he twice said on Twitter that NFL ratings are down, blaming it on “boring games,” “too many flags,” “too soft.”
Considering Trump’s extensive experience in the television business, even some of his frequent critics have said they respect his ability to parse ratings data. “Trump has no moral authority to tell the country what is and isn’t acceptable behavior,” the prominent political scientist Ian Bremmer wrote on Twitter on Sept. 24. “Does have authority to speak on TV ratings.”
Media analyst Brad Adgate said that Trump has a tendency to accuse networks he dislikes of having bad ratings even when the data says otherwise. “Sometimes he’s right and sometimes he’s wrong — it’s hit or miss,” Adgate said. Andrew Tyndall, another industry analyst, said that Trump’s ratings barbs “display no analytic subtlety whatsoever,” but that they’re meant generally as casual taunts, which have a lower bar.
Trump, according to multiple accounts, was obsessed with promoting the ratings for his former NBC show, The Apprentice, even when they weren’t as strong as he made them out to be.
Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson recently relayed an anecdote to Vanity Fair about how Trump would misrepresent ratings data as a way of promoting his then-show: “On the show he would say, ‘Well you know The Apprentice is the No. 1 show on television.’ And I would say live on the air, ‘No, it’s not.’ And he would say, ‘Yes, it is.’ And people at home would think, ‘Well, I should watch the No. 1 show on television.’ And before you know it he had the No. 1 show on television. It’s indicative of how he won the presidency.”
The source of Trump’s ratings data has also remained a mystery. A Nielsen spokesperson said the company does not discuss clients, and therefore “cannot confirm nor deny if the White House receive our data.” Adgate said he’s “doubtful” it does.
If anything is surprising, it’s that Trump has found the time in his schedule to crunch ratings data while also serving as the leader of the free world.
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