Trump lost the ratings battle: What that really means
Message to Donald Trump’s agent: If he winds up looking for a major network talk show gig after the election, tell him to calm down and exhale. Last week’s town hall ratings suggest he may not be ready for big-time broadcast television.
Thursday night, of course, pitted the president against rival Joe Biden in dueling town halls on competing mainstream networks: Biden on ABC, Trump on NBC. Biden won the ratings battle, even when Trump’s town hall numbers from NBC cable channels were included. But look at just the broadcast ratings, and Biden’s margin over Trump was even more significant.
That’s not surprising if you know what large American broadcast audiences look for.
Cable appeals to small slices of viewers, especially the news channels — which often serve as ventilation chambers for the frustrations of polarized political obsessives. Anger, resentment and revenge are some of the emotional mainstays that keep viewers tuned in.
But little of that works in broadcasting.
The main networks are where audiences tend to go for affirmation of widely held values and truisms. At the end of each typical episode, families hug, the good guys win and everyday heroes share a knowing smile as the credits roll. In daytime television, it’s much the same — “Ellen” is the funny friend who makes you laugh, “Judge Judy” the tough friend who helps you figure out right and wrong.
Media experts refer to TV as a “cool” medium, one that attracts the largest audience with softer, “cooler” emotions. Unlike movie stars, we let people on TV into our homes — where we really prefer that they behave themselves. If they don’t, we expect something bad will happen to them before they leave: an arrest, a conviction or at least a dressing-down by their frustrated spouse.
There is a darker side to broadcast television — the less friendly environments found on talk shows such as “Jerry Springer.” Anger is front and center here, screaming matches encouraged. Those programs attract enough viewers to stay on the air, but just barely. Like Trump, they don’t try to broaden their “base” — they stick with the audience they know, people who tell researchers all that mayhem makes them feel better about their own struggles and disappointments.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, those kinds of shows did find bigger audiences. In the middle of a sharp recession, combative programs such as “Geraldo” soared in the ratings and pioneered what was then called “trash TV.” But it didn’t last. Viewers soon had their fill and moved on to lighter fare such as Rosie O’Donnell.
From the start of his 2016 campaign, Trump played the role of a tabloid TV talk show host from the ’90s. He stirred up conflict in an audience that felt much like viewers did back then: ignored and victimized by forces they couldn’t control.
Trump is still that kind of host — but his very specific brand of TV know-how isn’t helping his numbers this time around. Post-debate polls and post-town hall ratings are not what the president has come to expect.
Audiences like to see their favorite TV stars grow and evolve season after season. When it comes to Trump, what felt exhilaratingly taboo to viewers four years ago now might seem like a talk show on autopilot, with the same gags and guests every day. There are loyal viewers, sure — but others have changed the channel, and new viewers aren’t tuning in.
Any Hollywood executive would tell you that Trump needs to switch things up if he wants to stay relevant. At the NBC town hall in Miami, questioner Paulette Dale gave the president an excellent show biz tip. “You have a great smile,” she told him. “You’re so handsome when you smile.”
Television likes handsome and likes smiles. Trump could do worse than to follow the advice.
Because there’s a final note to Trump’s agent: After that town hall, Dale told local reporters she’s actually voting for Biden. Trump, she said, should “smile more and talk less.”
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.