Thursday, January 22, 2009

Meaningless Numbers

Several media outlets reported today that, according to Nielsen, the number of Americans who watched Obama's inauguration on Tuesday (37.8 million) was not as large as the audience for Reagan's inauguration in 1981 (41.8 million viewers, the "largest ever"). This was played up on some conservative websites as proof that the 44th president isn't as popular as the 40th was.

As always, no one provided perspective, and no one pointed out that this statistic is meaningless. It's like arguing that Obama is the most popular president ever because he got more votes than anyone in history. That's a simple matter of math. As the nation's population keeps growing, each newly-elected president will break the most-votes record. It's not like Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron.

The Nielsen figures reveal nothing about which president's inaugural was the most-watched, because they don't include the huge numbers of people who viewed it online.

My wife was one of those. There's no TV in her office, so she and her cubicle-mates used their desktop monitors to find an online video stream of the inauguration. They couldn't get through on CNN.com (whose servers were so full they couldn't take any more viewers), but found another site easily and watched it that way. There were millions of people who accessed the video online, yet they are not included in any accurate metric that I've seen (there are estimates from some of the top news sites, but even they don't include all the various outlets where you could watch the ceremony live).

In an age where the public has so many information options, let's not jump to the wrong conclusions. If anything, the Nielsen numbers say something completely different -- that television viewership is down, even for major live events like Obama's inaugural.