For the past 30 years, presidents have enlisted prime-time television to promote their policies to the American people. For most of this era, they have been able to commandeer the national airwaves and speak to "captive" viewers. Recently, however, presidents appear to be losing their audiences. Two leading explanations are the rise of political disaffection and the growth of cable. We investigate both by developing and testing a model of the individual’s viewing decision using both cross-sectional (1996 NES survey) and time-series (128 Nielsen audience ratings for presidential appearances between 1969 and 1998) data. We find that cable television but not political disaffection has ended the golden age of presidential television. Moreover, we uncover evidence that both presidents and the broadcast networks have begun adapting strategically to this new reality in scheduling presidential appearances.
The time-series data for this article is available for download as an Excel file here.