Stand up for facts and support PolitiFact.
Now is your chance to go on the record as supporting trusted, factual information by joining PolitiFact’s Truth Squad. Contributions or gifts to PolitiFact, which is part of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Poynter Institute, are tax deductible.
I would like to contribute
Television ratings have long been a fixation for former reality TV star President Donald Trump, so it’s no wonder he shined a spotlight on the ratings for his first State of the Union.
"Thank you for all of the nice compliments and reviews on the State of the Union speech. 45.6 million people watched, the highest number in history. @FoxNews beat every other Network, for the first time ever, with 11.7 million people tuning in. Delivered from the heart!" Trump tweeted on Feb. 1, 2018.
Trump exaggerated crowd sizes before, so we wondered whether ratings backed up his latest boast. His claim about Fox News holds up, but not so much for total State of the Union viewership.
The Nielsen Company, the primary collector of television ratings data, indeed reported that 45.6 million Americans above the age of 2 tuned into the president’s address across 12 networks between 9 and 10:30 p.m.
That wasn’t a record, though. Trump came in sixth in total State of the Union viewers since Nielsen began collecting the data in 1993. George W. Bush garnered 62 million viewers in 2003; Bill Clinton 53 million in 1998; W. Bush 51.8 million in 2002; Obama 48 million in 2010; and Clinton 45.8 million in 1994.
The ranking is even lower when we also count first addresses to the Joint Sessions of Congress. That’s the first-term equivalent of the State of the Union, but the president is assumed to be too new to describe how the nation is faring.
Including those addresses, Trump’s State of the Union ranks ninth, outdone by his own first address to the Joint Sessions of Congress, which had 47.7 million viewers. Clinton ranks first with 66.9 viewers in 1993, and Obama’s 2009 address had 53.2 million viewers.
When we asked about the "highest number in history," the White House said Trump had been talking about cable news history. That works only if we exclude Trump’s Joint Address to Congress in 2017 and only include the three major cable networks (CNN, Fox News Network and MSNBC) dating back to 2001, when all three aired the address. Nielsen does not track State of the Union viewership from cable and broadcast networks separately, so we tallied up ratings for the major networks across the years.
That wasn’t clear in the tweet, however, as the 45.6 million people encompassed watchers of both cable and broadcast networks.
Fox News had an average of 11.5 million viewers between 9 and 10:30 p.m., according to Nielsen. Using the same data set, Fox reported 11.7 million viewers between 9:15 to 10:30 p.m. (The speech ran from 9:09 to 10:30 p.m.)
That was a record high for Fox News during a State of the Union speech. It came in second for a presidential address to Congress only to Trump’s Address to the Joint Sessions of Congress last year.
Fox indeed beat out the other major networks, as Trump claimed. CNN raked in 3.1 million viewers and MSNBC had 2.7 million viewers during the State of the Union. ABC delivered 5.4 million viewers, NBC 7.1 million, CBS 7 million and FOX 3.6 million, according to Nielsen.
If, as the White House explained, Trump was talking only about cable news networks, that wasn’t the first time Fox News beat out the other cable networks during a State of the Union address. While the time stamps vary slightly for each network, Fox beat out CNN and MSNBC every year according to Nielsen, save for 2016.
Trump said "45.6 million people watched, the highest number in history. @FoxNews beat every other Network, for the first time ever, with 11.7 million people tuning in."
45.6 million people watched Trump’s State of the Union, but that wasn’t the highest number in history. Five other State of the Union speeches raked in more viewers, and eight other presidential addresses to joint sessions of Congress did, too.
If we only look at cable news airings of the State of the Union among the major networks, this year indeed raked in the highest numbers. That wasn’t clear in the tweet.
Fox News delivered 11.7 million viewers for the duration of the president’s speech, give or take a few minutes. It beat every other network airing the speech. That wasn’t a first, though, as the network’s ratings have consistently beaten other cable providers’ during the event.
Given the misleading nature of the first statement, and the accuracy of the second, we rate Trump’s statement Mostly False.
Donald J. Trump, Tweet, Feb. 1, 2018
Email interview, Steven Cheung, Feb. 1, 2018
TV ratings, The Nielsen Company
Fox News press release, Fox News Channel was the most-watched network in all of television for last night’s State of the Union address, Jan. 31, 2018
Nielsen.com, Nearly 48 million Americans watch President Donald Trump's first address to Congress, March 1, 2017
Nielsen.com, Nearly 46 million viewers watch President Trump's State of the Union address, Jan. 31, 2018
Read About Our Process
In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.