In 2008, the Republican National Convention drew a large number of viewers as the nation got its first peek at vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, giving television network executives hope that voters were still interested in watching election coverage on their sets at home.
That optimism has now turned to doubt. The viewership for last week’s Republican convention in Tampa dropped substantially from 2008 as viewers shifted to social media, which allowed them to not only watch, but comment in real time on what they thought of the various speakers.
In 2008, 37 million people tuned in to watch Sarah Palin speak versus the 22 million who watched Paul Ryan deliver his vice presidential acceptance speech.
Some of that drop can be attributed to the curiosity about Palin. But social media also had an impact as YouTube live-streamed the convention, attracting 2.8 million viewers, along with several media organizations, something that was not widely available in 2008.
The real growth of social media, however, was shown by Twitter. In 2008 there were a combined total of 365,000 tweets sent for both the RNC and DNC conventions combined. According to Twitter, the Republican convention alone generated four million tweets this year.
At its high point, Mitt Romney’s speech generated 14,300 tweets per minute, which was more than Barack Obama elicited for his State of the Union speech in January, which clocked in at 14,100 tweets per minute.
To underscore the effect that social media had on the convention, consider the Clint Eastwood empty chair routine on Thursday night. Someone created a Twitter account, @InvisibleObama, which attracted over 20,000 followers in 45 minutes and now has over 69,000 followers.
The Democratic convention, which began yesterday, could set a new standard as conservative activists were very busy tweeting about the convention and will undoubtedly continue their “observations” to a greater degree than liberal activists did during the Republican convention.
The shift to social media was inevitable as the major networks trimmed their coverage to basically one prime time hour per night. Social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter allow for continuous coverage, and can now be seen on more portable devices like tablets and smartphones, siphoning away many television viewers.
Televised coverage of the conventions isn’t going away just yet, but it is likely to be reduced further in the future as social media use continues to grow and takes the television audience along with it.