Democratic convention TV audience falls short of 2016 level

MSNBC had the largest prime-time audience on the first night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, but overall viewing of the party’s virtual gathering on Monday was down significantly from four years ago.

Nielsen data showed an average of around 18.7 million viewers watched the speakers featured from 10 to 11:15 p.m. Eastern on the major ad-supported channels. The speakers included former First Lady Michelle Obama, who delivered a solemn but scathing indictment of the Trump presidency.

The total fell nearly 28% below the 25.9 million who watched night one of the 2016 convention on the major ad-supported channels, when Obama was also featured.

The downturn in the ratings can be partly attributed to the production values on Monday’s telecast, which could not compete with the glitzy spectacles of conventions past.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the convention that will nominate former Vice President Joe Biden to challenge President Trump in November into a string of segments presented remotely and hosted by actress Eva Longoria. The event was originally scheduled to be held at the Fiserv Forum and Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee.

Critics compared the occasionally ramshackle TV presentation to a telethon and the virtual awards shows that have been held during the public health crisis. The convention also faced greater competition from the delayed sports seasons, putting it up against NHL and NBA action.

In the hour carried by ABC, CBS and NBC and the three major cable news channels, MSNBC led with 5.1 million viewers, followed by 4.8 million for CNN, 2.4 million for ABC, 2.3 million for NBC, 2.1 million for Fox News and 2 million for CBS.

Audience data was not available for how many people watched on PBS and C-SPAN or on streaming platforms.

Like most TV news political coverage, the convention audience was made up largely of older viewers. An average of 3.56 million viewers in the 18-to-49 age group watched Monday across the six networks.

MSNBC’s ratings leadership is a switch from four years ago when CNN had the most viewers on the first convention night. But CNN led all of the networks among viewers ages 25 to 54, the demographic most important to advertisers who buy time on news programming.

Fox News, which caters to conservative viewers in prime time, typically finishes behind the cable news competition during Democratic conventions (it was the most watched channel over the full day on Monday). MSNBC serves up progressive opinions in the evening, and its brand identity as a progressive outlet has become more pronounced during the Trump presidency.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former President Bill Clinton are scheduled to address the convention on Tuesday. Biden is scheduled to speak on Thursday, and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), is set to make her acceptance speech on Wednesday.