Obama falls short of Reagan's numbers in '81

Barack Obama’s inauguration did big ratings but couldn’t match the turnout for Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural in 1981.

An estimated 37.8 million viewers (or 25.5% of U.S. households) were watching the presidential inauguration from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET – easily the largest in decades but below the 41.8 million viewers for Reagan, according to Nielsen.

The Obama rating includes viewership on roughly 15 broadcast and cable networks, while the Reagan ceremony was telecast only on ABC, CBS and NBC back in the bygone three-network era.

But the X factor for Tuesday’s Obama-thon was the record-setting online viewership the inaugural events generated. Virtually every cable news net and broadcast network news division reported record streaming video traffic on Tuesday. MSNBC, for one, reported delivering a record 9.1 million live video streams on its website; ABC News said it logged a record 8.3 million video viewers.

The 1981 Reagan inauguration, whose ratings were likely boosted due to the keen interest in the subsequent release of 52 American hostages in Iran, remains the most-watched inaugural on record. The low-water mark came in 2005 for the second inauguration of George W. Bush (15.5 million).

In the 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. ET window, which included the swearing-in ceremony, NBC squeaked out a victory among the broadcast nets, averaging 11.49 million total viewers to ABC’s 11.03 million and CBS’ 7.2 million. Topping the Eye, however, was CNN, with 7.3 million.

CNN easily bested its cable competish with an average of 6.9 million total viewers between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (the highest number for that time frame in its history) to Fox’s 4.4 million and MSNBC’s 2.6 million. It also prevailed in the 25-54 news demo with 2.8 million, while Fox notched 1.4 million and MSNBC 924,000.

Regionally, the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., market had the largest percentage of households tuned in to the history-making festivities (51%), while Washington, D.C., came in second (48%). Perhaps not surprisingly, five of the seven lowest-rated markets (Los Angeles, Sacramento, the Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle-Tacoma) were in the Pacific time zone, where Obama took the oath at 9 a.m. (the other two were Mountain-zoned Denver and Phoenix).

As daytime gave way to primetime and auds seemed to tire of inaugural coverage, Fox’s “American Idol” again reigned supreme. Sure, ABC did solid numbers for its two-hour spec on the inaugural balls, but news specials on CBS and NBC were not competitive with entertainment programs in their time periods.

According to preliminary nationals for Nielsen, “American Idol” dominated Tuesday’s opening hour with an 8.9 rating/22 share in adults 18-49 and 22.4 million viewers overall. “Idol” was seemingly affected by the inaugural activities, as it was down sharply from last week’s two-hour premiere, as expected, but also came in more than 15% below the show’s second Tuesday episode of a year ago.

As for the inauguration specials, ABC averaged a 3.7/9 in 18-49 and 12.6 million viewers overall from 8 to 10 p.m. for “Neighborhood Ball: An Inauguration Celebration,” peaking from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. with a 4.2/10 in the demo and about 14 million viewers overall. It stood as the night’s second most-watched program, behind “Idol,” and gave the network its best performance on the night since the “Dancing With the Stars” finale in November.

News wasn’t as good at CBS for Katie Couric’s one-hour 9 o’clock special “Change and Challenge: The Inauguration of Barack Obama” (1.8/4 in 18-49, 6.9 million viewers overall), which ranked fourth for its hour. The net fared better in the evening’s other hours with repeats of “NCIS” at 8 (2.3/6 in 18-49, 11.7 million) and “The Mentalist” at 10 (2.6/7 in 18-49, 10.5 million).

And at NBC, the 10 o’clock special “Inauguration of Barack Obama” ran third (2.2/6 in 18-49, 6.2 million) despite a healthy lead-in from “The Biggest Loser.”

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