Remember when people actually gave a rat's patootie about prime-time Presidential addresses? I know it's hard, but think back... back to the days when, if a sitting President announces that he's setting aside time to talk to the nation, people made sure they took the time to watch. They gathered around TVs and radios, paying rapt attention to the man's speech. It didn't matter whether you agreed with the Presidents politics or not; if you were at all interested in the direction of the country, you made sure you caught the speech somehow.
Nowadays? Not so much.
How do I know this? Well, a look at the overnight ratings from Monday, when President Bush made his address about his new immigration policy, shows that people were more interested in seeing the finales of Grey's Anatomy and How I Met Your Mother than finding out about how Bush was going to stem the tide of illegal immigration. The network ratings for the night increased sharply after the 8:00 hour, which is when the country knew Bush's speech would air. It's almost as if people avoided TV like the plague until 8:30 or so, then decided to peek back in to see if the "important" shows were back on.
(Ironically, ratings on the all-news channels were up sharply from Bush's last address in December. This tells me that the people who were actually interested in what Bush had to say sought out the news networks and their extended coverage. It makes me wonder if this is the way things are going to go for future addresses.)
Indeed, when I did my TV Squad recap post of Sunday night's episode of Grey's, there were a number of commenters who were genuinely concerned that Bush's speech would delay the Monday season finale, which was scheduled to air at 9, after an Oprah special. Luckily, ABC decided to move Oprah to next Monday and just reran the Sunday Grey's, which they joined in progress after the 18-minute address. But the concern on the part of the viewers was palpable, and surprising, considering how Presidential addresses used to rivet the nation, no matter what they were pre-empting.
It makes me wonder about how we got to this point as a country, where the general viewing public is more concerned that a Presidential speech is going to screw up their TiVos than about the content of the speech itself. It could be that people in general are less concerned with politics than we in the media think they are; after 2004"s "high" 64% voter turnout, this should no longer be a surprise.
But what this could be is that the Bush administration's notorious tight-lippedness, combined with a boy-who-cried-wolf-ism that rankles people on both sides of the ideological fence, is finally catching up with them. This wasn't an address about an invasion or a major natural disaster, it was about an issue that has been in the spotlight for the last couple of years, so the timing of the speech was curious. Even new press secretary Tony Snow let slip that "this is crunch time" and that Bush felt it was a good time to address this issue with the nation. But why was it a good time? Because Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low, that's why. It's not exactly a rallying cry, is it?
It's gotten to the point that Americans are seeing every Bush speech as a vehicle for him to push an agenda rather than a concerted effort to allay the concerns of the public. Not that Bush is the first President to do this; agenda-pushing speeches are as old as politics itself. But it seems like his adminsitration does it more than most. It's hard to believe that at one time -- which now seems like aeons ago -- he was able to make speeches that caught people's attention and galvanized the country at the same time.
Maybe that's why people care more about Grey's Anatomy than a Presidential address. They figure if they're going to be bullshitted, they'd rather watch pretty people do the bullshitting.