02/25/2010 07:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Health Summit Reality Check

The point of this post is probably obvious, but given the tendency among political junkies to assume that other Americans follow politics the way we do, it's probably worth repeating: While it is true that the health care summit will likely draw an "audience of millions," live viewing will be limited to those who watch live via C-SPAN, cable news networks or the internet. As such, that audience is likely to be a significantly smaller than the numbers that watched the Obama-McCain debates or typically tune into prime-time presidential addresses.

Let's think for a moment about what it means to have an audience of "millions." We are a nation of 304 million people (of all ages), 286 million in television households, and nearly 213 million who were eligible to vote and just over 131 million who cast a ballot int the 2008 presidential election.   

Now consider the way the health care summit will be televised today: My colleagues at The Hotline tell me that live coverage will likely be limited to C-SPAN and the cable news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC), plus websites that stream video over the internet.

Yesterday, a spokesperson for the Nielsen Company kindly shared the following ratings data with me. The average audiences for the cable news networks for this "season to date" is 1,235,000 million for Fox News, 495,00 for CNN and 362,000 for MSNBC (all statistics represent averages across each networks programming day for all persons including children over age 2 -- you can find similar reports at the invaluable web site, TV by the Numbers). So if we assume that the overlap between these audiences is trivial, it means that those three networks typically draw a combined average of a little over 2 million.

Sure, that doesn't include C-SPAN or the internet or any ancillary coverage on networks like CNBC or CNN Headline News, and the cable networks are likely to get a modest boost in viewing today. But let's assume the live audience tops five million. That would certainly be "millions" (plural), but still a single digit percentage of all American voters.

Compare that to the audiences for the following events that were covered live by all of the broadcast networks during prime-time evening hours:

  • 48 million watched Obama's first State of the Union Address last month.
  • 32.1 million watched Obama's live address on health care in September 2009.

The September health care address, combined with the news coverage that followed, did result in a brief and modest increase support for health care reform and in Obama's health care approval rating, but the audience was much larger than those likely to tune in to the health care summit today. The overwhelming majority of those that watch live today or follow news coverage of the event later tonight and tomorrow will likely be the same news junkies that have been closely following news about health care reform all along.

But this event is extremely important with one small but very crucial audience: The members of the House and Senate and the news junkies that surround and advise them. For them this event probably serves as something of a demonstration project for how the health care debate might play out in their own elections later this fall: Will the substance of the discussion help change the tone of the debate or the coverage? Will health reform supporters gain an upper hand in selling whatever plan faces further votes in the House and Senate? As such, the very small live audience is important, I just wouldn't look for a big, overnight polling surge in either direction.

Update:  Ironically, after all the barbs traded over lack of final health care "negotiations" being conducted "on C-SPAN" (as candidate Obama pledged in 2008), and after this hilarious satirical trailer that bounced around the internet yesterday, the summit is not being broadcast live on either C-SPAN or C-SPAN2 since both the House and Senate remain in session.  However, C-SPAN plans to re-air the entire summit tonight in prime time. My guess is that C-SPAN's prime-time audience is not large enough to significantly alter my calculus above.