Sensation-fatigue: Why Joe Biden won the ratings war against Donald Trump in their dueling town halls


Photo credit: Emma Kaden, Flickr. Original photos by Gage Skidmore. Adapted and republished. License.

In an embarrassment for our ratings-obsessed occupant of the Oval Office, it appears that millions more watched a calm and measured Joe Biden on ABC last night than watched a bombastic Donald Trump on NBC.

Donald Trump was the king of ratings and reality TV long before he ever ran for president, and throughout the time he has been a politician, few things have mattered to him more than ratings and the popularity he believes the ratings represent. He bickered over how many people attended and watched his inauguration vs. President Obama's, and he lost his cool when it was revealed that more people had watched the Democratic National Convention to nominate Joe Biden this year than watched the GOP convention that formally renominated him for president.

There was little doubt when NBC News announced Wednesday that it would hold a town hall with Donald Trump exactly at the same time ABC was to hold its town hall with Joe Biden that it was orchestrated by the Trump campaign to be a ratings fight they believed they could win.

They had every reason to believe they would, too.

For one thing, Donald Trump is a TV magnet. He may be a TV magnet for the same reason that everyone slows down on the freeway to watch a 4 car pileup, but he's a TV magnet nonetheless. Even if people tune in to watch him rant, race, crash, and burn, people still do watch.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, has a reputation for being a bit... boring. He's not bombastic, constantly agitated, or particularly keen on making news for the hell of it. Instead, Biden is seen as much more of a seasoned, measured, calming figure.

Second, NBC controls more platforms than ABC. In addition to broadcast television stations, which both NBC and ABC have in every market, NBC also controls cable news channels MSNBC and CNBC. ABC controls no cable news outlets, so Biden actually started out at a disadvantage.

But evidently, train wreck fatigue is real. From early numbers, it appears that Joe Biden crushed Donald Trump among viewership numbers.

On preliminary network stats, 13.9 million people watched Biden on ABC while only 10.6 million watched Trump on NBC. Even when the Trump's numbers across NBC's cable assets are combined, Trump is still at 13 million, a million shy of Biden's numbers. Samba TV, a ratings company that focuses on smart TVs, said that 6.9 million people streamed Biden on a connected TV set as opposed to 6.3 million who streamer Trump on their sets. And finally, just 153,660 people were watching Trump on NBC News' YouTube channel at the end, while at the same time, 507,445 were tuned into see Biden on ABC's YouTube channel. Combining the numbers puts Biden at a total viewership of 21.3 million and Trump at roughly 19.4 million. No wonder the Trump campaign and his supporters would rather talk about how mean Savannah Guthrie was for asking Trump questions.

But the Trump campaign should be worried about more than losing the ratings game they set up. Everyone who is interested will, sooner or later, watch both town halls. What should truly worry the Trump campaign is why Biden's town hall got more people watching live than Trump's.

After all, Trump was his bombastic self last night, and Biden exhibited his usual calm, reasoned, and even wonky persona. If Trump's event was filled with the usual bluster and brushes with the moderator or refusing to condemn conspiracy theorists like QAnon, Biden's was filled with policy details, numbers, and a respectful demeanor.

The candidates themselves, in other words, did not do anything special or out-of-character. So why was Trump's bombast unable to draw more viewers?

One possibility - and this is my working theory - is that people are sensation-fatigued. After five years of watching Trump bulldoze through norms, people want some normalcy back in their lives. They want to be able to wake up in the morning and not worry about what the president metaphorically blew up that day. People want a president who will work hard to heal the nation and make our lives better, but will also make it possible for us to go about our boring lives without political fireballs constantly interrupting.

It's why Trump's attacks on Joe Biden as "sleepy Joe" has gone nowhere. Not only has Joe Biden demonstrated extraordinary sharpness and command of policy along with his characteristic empathy, most people would like a little peace and calm in their lives and in their government right now.

And it's why Biden appears to have won the ratings fight last night. People wanted to tune into a conversation that will calm their nerves, not raise their blood pressure. People wanted to watch a president who respects voters who politically disagree with him enough to take their questions seriously and answer them sincerely, not someone who constantly finger-points, rants and raves. People wanted to watch someone who can admit the possibility of his own defeat with humility, not someone who insists only a victory for them is a legitimate outcome of the democratic process.

Stay calm and vote.