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Politics Fact check: Biden's speech had an estimated 26.9 million viewers

04:50  01 may  2021
04:50  01 may  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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The claim: President Joe Biden’s address to Congress had 11.6 million viewers

a group of people in a room: President Joe Biden arrives to address a joint session of Congress, Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. © Jonathan Ernst, AP President Joe Biden arrives to address a joint session of Congress, Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

On the eve of his 100th day in office, President Joe Biden laid out his vision of post-pandemic America to a small contingent of socially distanced lawmakers. Some conservative commentators say the speech, Biden’s first to Congress as president, didn’t get rave reviews.

An April 29 Facebook post from James T. Harris, a conservative radio host and social media personality, lists television ratings for five past presidential addresses — four from former President Donald Trump and one from Biden. The post says Biden’s address to Congress had only 11.6 million viewers, compared to 37.2 million viewers for Trump’s 2020 State of the Union speech.

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“That’s over a 60% decrease in viewership,” Harris’ post says. “No crowds ever attended his rallies. There was no crowd at his installation. There are no views for his on-line speeches. The audience for his regular speeches are non-existent. Virtually no viewers at home. An empty chamber for his speech,… and yet we are to believe he received 81 million votes.”

Harris cited the Conservative Tree House, a website that published the same claim in an April 29 blog post. As evidence, the Conservative Tree House linked to a website called the TV Ratings Guide.

“Biden didn’t win… we all know it,” says an image in the Conservative Tree House’s post.

More: Read the full transcript from President Joe Biden's address to a joint session of Congress

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The election claim is wrong — Biden won the 2020 presidential election with 306 electoral votes, while Trump lost with 232 votes. And the Conservative Treehouse understated the total viewership for Biden’s address to Congress.

USA TODAY reached out to Harris and the Conservative Treehouse for comment.

Biden’s address had an estimated 26.9 million viewers

The Conservative Tree House significantly misstated the ratings for Biden’s primetime address. The president’s speech had 26.9 million viewers, not 11.6 million.

That’s according to an estimate from Nielsen, a widely cited firm that tracks TV viewership. Nielsen’s estimate, which was published the day after Biden’s address, includes viewers for 16 networks that aired the speech.

The TV Ratings Guide estimated Biden’s address had 12.2 million viewers. However, that only accounts for four networks — ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — making Nielsen’s count a better estimate for the speech’s total viewership.

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The Conservative Tree House has a point about Biden’s speech receiving lower ratings than Trump’s addresses to Congress. Compared with Nielsen’s estimates, the blog’s list of viewers for Trump’s four State of the Union addresses is in the ballpark, although it rounds up significantly for some years. In 2020, Trump’s address to Congress had 37.1 million viewers, 38% more than Biden’s speech had, according to Nielsen.

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But that ratings slump may have more to do with TV trends than who’s in the White House.

“The pandemic accelerated what has already been evident for years: Gradual erosion in live TV audiences in the United States,” Brian Stelter wrote for CNN on April 29. “Simply put, as more people spend more time watching on-demand programming, the public is less inclined to watch live events. Sagging ratings for award shows like the Emmys and the Oscars have underscored this trend.”

Nielsen’s ratings also don’t capture all the ways people can view content online. The most-watched State of the Union addresses from the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush — when internet streaming wasn’t as popular — topped 52 million and 62 million, respectively.

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Biden events sparsely attended? Blame COVID-19

The rating figure isn't the only place this post goes wrong.

A recurring line of attack against Biden is that his rallies, speeches and other in-person events don’t attract large crowds. There’s truth to that claim, but it lacks context about why those events are sparsely attended.

Biden ran for president during the coronavirus pandemic, when in-person gatherings were limited to prevent the spread of the virus. While Trump’s campaign resumed rallies in the final months of the election season, which researchers say led to a spike in COVID-19 cases, the Biden campaign held socially distant and virtual events.

In other words, Biden's events were small in part because he chose to keep them that way.

Biden’s April 28 address to Congress was the latest example of COVID-19 precautions limiting in-person attendance. No more than 200 people were allowed in the House chamber to hear the president speak in a place that can hold up to 1,500.

USA TODAY previously rated a claim that photos of Biden’s small campaign events showed a low-turnout rally as missing context.

Our rating: Partly false

The claim that Biden’s address to Congress had only 11.6 million viewers is PARTLY FALSE, based on our research. The claim is not literally true — Biden’s speech attracted an estimated 26.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen. But the address did have lower ratings than Trump’s 2020 State of the Union speech, a slump that could be part of the decline in live TV viewers in the U.S. Attendance at Biden’s in-person events has been limited due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Our fact-check sources:

  • ABC News, Oct. 7,2020, Joe Biden ramping up virtual fundraisers in final stretch of campaign cycle
  • CNBC, Oct. 31, 2020, Trump campaign rallies led to more than 30,000 coronavirus cases, Stanford researchers say
  • CNN, April 29, Biden's first address to Congress wasn't immune to TV ratings erosion
  • The Conservative Tree House, April 29, Ratings are In, White House Occupant 2021 Speech to Congress Draws Less Than One-Third of Audience from Trump 2020
  • James T. Harris, April 29, Facebook post
  • Insider, Aug. 17, 2020, Photos show inside Joe Biden's socially distant presidential campaign
  • National Archives, accessed April 30, 2020 Electoral College Results
  • Nielsen, April 29, MEDIA ADVISORY: NEARLY 27 MILLION VIEWERS WATCH PRES. JOE BIDEN’S FIRST ADDRESS TO CONGRESS
  • The TV Ratings Guide, April 29, Wednesday TV Ratings 4/28/21: President Biden Address Down from 2020 Trump State of the Union, The Goldbergs Slips (UPDATED)
  • USA TODAY, April 29, Why President Joe Biden's speech to Congress was unlike any other in modern history
  • USA TODAY, April 28, President pushed new jobs, infrastructure, policing initiatives in COVID-era speech to Congress
  • USA TODAY, Sept. 22, 2020, Fact check: Biden campaign events portrayed as small lack context of COVID-19 guidelines
  • USA TODAY, Sept. 12, 2020,// Trump rallies 2.0: Behind the curtain at the president's campaign events in the COVID-19 era

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Biden's speech had an estimated 26.9 million viewers

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President Joe Biden made a sweeping case Wednesday for massive new programs that would transform the government's role in Americans' lives, claiming the very future of the country is at stake in his first address to Congress. © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of congress as Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (R) look on in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC.

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