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Baum and Kernell: Has cable ended the golden age of presidential television

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Baum and Kernell. 1999. Has cable ended the golden age of presidential television?. APSR.


From Kennedy on, presidents learned the value of 'going public' in order to influence Congress (see Kernell 1997). But presidents have had declining viewership of their addresses for the past twenty years. Observers have offered two explanations: (1) citizens are growing less interested in politics or (2) cable TV has made it easier to tune the president out. This analysis supports the latter. And because of this market pressure, the president has grown strategic about requesting network coverage (preserving the valuable 9:00p slot for only the most important addresses) and networks have grown more strategic about providing it (providing more airtime to more popular presidents, refusing to air everything the president requests, etc).

The Model

The probability that you will view the president depends on P*B - C (see Fig 4).

  • B: The benefits you expect to receive--the value/credibility of the information you think the president can provide.
  • P: The probability that the president will actually provide this useful information.
  • C: The costs, including opportunity costs, of viewing. If you have cable, the opportunity costs go up (since there are other programs on).


Test #1: Cross-sectional

For the first test, the authors use NES and GSS data about (self-reported) viewership of the 1996 presidential debates. They find that having cable and a few other demographic factors make you less likely to watch the president. The effects of cable are strong and interact with the other significant variables, especially with political knowledge (Fig 5). The effects of political knowledge are strongest when you have cable, b/c it's easy to tune out (those with less knowledge tune out more).

Test #2: Time-series

Using data spanning several decades, they show that president's audience shares have fallen rapidly in correlation with the networks' market shares (and thus the rise of cable)--even when you control for the president's popularity, changes in the public's engagement/trust of politics, the issues the president discussed, and the time of year/day that the president spoke.

Test #3: Strategic use of networks by presidents

Using logit (Table 4), they show that presidents (since 1980 only) have become strategic in requesting 9:00p coverage (since this is the most highly viewed hour). They use it, for example, for the state of the union address. They also use it more during the beginning of their term, and when they are popular. (It's unclear whether the presidents are requesting it less, or whether the networks are providing it less. Perhaps networks only want to provide airtime to popular presidents, since they will hold an audience.)