Obama Chooses Dying Medium to Address War-Weary Nation

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President Obama works at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office on Oct. 18, 2013.
Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Obama will interrupt viewers of CBS, ABC, Fox and NBC at 9 p.m. on Wednesday for a rare prime-time address about his strategy for fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Those viewers — Americans seeking a mindless reprieve from the stresses of their daily lives through shows like NBC’s America’s Got Talent, ABC’s Modern Family, FOX’s Hell’s Kitchen and a CBS football special — will hear from a president who is relying on the gravity of a prime-time address to convey the seriousness of the Islamic State.

But with an ever-fleeing viewership and a fracturing media landscape, does a prime-time address really command the attention it did in the days of Kennedy or Nixon?

“Prime time ain’t so prime anymore,” says Mark McKinnon, a political consultant who’s served as a campaign media advisor on general and primary presidential elections. “While it does send the message that the president thinks it’s important, it’s a pretty conventional approach that is losing relevance.”

After all, evening news ratings have been dropping like f-bombs on the set of the O’Reilly Factor since 1980:

network evening news ratings

Image: Nielsen Media Research, Pew Research Center

And “cable news” — channels like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and HLN — has fared only slightly better, with numbers that show more of a stabilization than an outright tumble:

cable news prime-time viewers pew

Image: Nielsen Media Research/Pew Research Center

But on an average night those totals rarely top 3 million viewers — and those networks are seeing some of their worst ratings in decades.

Ratings for Obama’s prime-time State of the Union addresses have been steadily declining as well: 52.4 million watched in 2009; 48 million in 2010; 42.8 million in 2011; 37.8 million in 2012 and 33.5 million in 2013. SOTU viewership hit a record low in 2014, when fewer than 33.3 million people watched.

Jon Favreau, who served as President Obama’s chief speechwriter from 2009 to 2013, said the White House definitely recognizes the changing times, but it also knows prime-time television will still reach a big audience.

Prime-time network television, for all its decline, still commands millions of viewers, and the interruption of programming itself is a signal that the president has something important to talk about,” Favreau told Mashable.

Then again, the Internet commands millions of viewers, too. Apple employed a technically challenged livestream complete with a Chinese audio overlay to announce its long-awaited smartwatch and new iPhones on Tuesday. Surely Tim Cook felt he had something important to talk about.

Even Favreau once called prime time an “old format” in 2013. And Obama has, in the past, experimented with mediums beyond television to get out the word on big issues.

“During my time on both campaigns and in the White House, I saw our communications team do more than I ever thought possible to help the president reach people where they are — from breaking the VP selection with a text to supporters, to Reddit AMAs and Google hangouts,” Favreau said.

But a prime-time address is still helpful at certain moments, he added, and a commander-in-chief explaining a strategy to defeat a dangerous terrorist organization would be one of them.

“I think in this instance I would have advised him to do it,” he said. “Now, do I think that millions more might first see and hear about the speech online the next day? Absolutely.”

Read more: http://mashable.com/2014/09/10/obama-prime-time-tv-islamic-state/

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