Despite declining viewership, networks still consider State of the Union important event
Gannett News Service
Jan. 31, 2006

Mike Hughes

Even though they're surrounded by alternatives, many people will still watch the annual "State of the Union" address.

There were 38.4 million Americans last year watching it in English, Nielsen Media Research says. Another 1.05 million saw it on Spanish-language television.

That was relatively low. Over the past decade, Nielsen says, English-language viewership has ranged from 62.1 million in 2003 to 31.5 million in 2000.

"You can't predict," says Jeffrey Schneider, spokesman for ABC News. "A lot of it depends on what's in the news that week."

Still, the news divisions are talking about this being a big year.

"There are so many issues right now, whether it's the Supreme Court or Iraq or national security or (lobbyist Jack) Abramoff," says Sean McManus, president of CBS News. "There should be a lot of interest; that's why we're doing a full two hours."

So are ABC, NBC and the three news channels. They'll catch the speech at 9 p.m. Tuesday, followed by the Democratic response and their own commentary, continuing until 11. Fox stations - and some Fox-owned stations that usually carry other networks - will carry coverage until about 10:30.

"This is an important time for the president, a pivotal time in his second term," says David Westin, the president of ABC News. "We are absolutely doing it for two hours. We cover the State of the Union because it matters."

In his mobile-anchor setup, he'll be spread out. He had planned to anchor coverage from two continents - Elizabeth Vargas in New York and Bob Woodruff in the Middle East. Woodruff, however, was seriously injured Sunday by an explosive device in Iraq. Listed in serious but stable condition, he was taken Monday to a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

During some years, political coverage has been seen as a big time for independents, small networks and cable channels to grab viewers. This year has little of that.

UPN had scheduled a new reality show ("Get This Party Started") for 9 p.m.
Tuesday. It changed plans after learning that for that night it would be losing any of its affiliates that are owned by Fox.

"Fox has mandated that all of its stations carry the address," says Kelly Kahl, who does scheduling for UPN. "That involves about 20 percent of our viewers."

So UPN will air a "Veronica Mars" rerun that night and start its reality show a week later. Even PBS (check local listings) has reruns; at 9 p.m., "Frontline" views al-Qaida terrorism in Europe, at 10, "Independent Lens"
views George Clinton and his music group Parliament-Funkadelic.

Fox will air its "American Idol" auditions in Las Vegas at 8 p.m., but confines it to one hour instead of two. The only other major effort that night will be on WB, which has new episodes of "Gilmore Girls" at 8 and "Supernatural" at 9.

Beyond that, channel surfers at 9 p.m. Tuesday will find all the usual cable choices -"Dog the Bounty Hunter," "Dirty Jobs," "Meet the Barkers" - but nothing special.

Here are the numbers Nielsen has available for English-language viewers of the address:

Bill Clinton: 45.8 million viewers, 1994; 42.2 million, 1995; 40.9, 1996; 41.1, 1997; 53.1, 1998; 43.5, 1999; 31.5, 2000.

George W. Bush: 39.8 million, 2001; 51.8, 2002; 62.1, 2003; 43.4, 2004; 38.4, 2005.