The American President vs. Dave

Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin

Last week Senator Obama was channeling Aaron Sorkin when he challenged Senator McCain to a debate about which of them had the temperament and judgment to be President of the United States. Parts of his speech read like a page out of Sorkin’s pre-The West Wing movie script, The American President. “John McCain doesn’t get it!” It made for great television. So much so, that it was the highest rated television hour this year. Obama’s acceptance speech pulled in 38.4 million viewers across the channels in the 10PM hour. It beat the opening ceremony of the Olympics (34.2 million), the Oscars (31.6 million) and the American Idol season finale (21.7 million). Just remember, all of the network show’s air on only one channel, the Senator’s speech was on NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, Fox News, MSNBC, CSPAN and a few more. Alexander Gittleson at ABC reminded me that the Nielsen numbers do not include CSPAN, PBS or BET for that matter so Senator Obama’s viewership was probably closer to 45 million.

Is there an hour of television in the recent memory of man or beast where CNN has beaten ABC by 1.5 million viewers? It happened during Senator Obama’s speech. CNN’s coverage was the number one program on basic cable (8.1 million viewers,) besting TNT’s cop drama The Closer with 7.4 million.

This week, Governor Palin was channeling Gary Ross and Ivan Reitman when the self proclaimed, “pit-bull with lipstick” went right after Senator Obama with a hockey stick. It was like a scene out of the movie, Dave — a little sleeper from 1993 staring Kevin Kline. The tag line from the movie was, “In a country where anybody can become President, anybody just did.” No matter what you think of her politics, Governor Palin’s coming out party was compelling television and compelling television drives ratings! The Governor’s numbers were extraordinary. Preliminary data from Nielsen Media Research shows that Palin’s broadcast television audience of 37.2 million viewers edged out Senator Clinton’s and decimated Senator Biden’s audience of 24 million viewers.

By comparison, Senator McCain’s acceptance speech was low-key. And even though public speaking from a teleprompter is not his thing. His speech topped Senator Obama’s for total viewers (38.9 million). But remember, the actual number is probably higher for the same reasons Senator Obama’s number are probably higher. In any event, Senator McCain’s repositioning of his brand strategy will be what people take-away from the event. “Maverick” and the “Pit-bull” are going to change Washington the “right” way.

Sarah “The Pit-bull” Palin, Senator McCain’s VP pick, has been “the” topic of conversation for most of this week. While speaking with CNBC’s Jonathan Wald about the biz, he said, “Obama was the new guy, but Palin is the new, new guy! This is going to be quite a fight.” Jonathan’s right, this is going to be a fight. But look at what they’re fighting over – Women 18-49. Interestingly, according to Nielsen, Governor Palin pulled in more women (19.5 million), than Mrs. Clinton (14.3 million). This might as well be P&G vs. Unilever. Not politically, of course. Just looking for market share. Women make up 54% of the voting public. Whichever camp gets the most Women will win. It’s a little sad to reduce the campaign for POTUS to similarities with share points and adjusted case volumes, but that’s how it’s going to be.

Which brand of female-friendly politics will you buy? The Democrat’s tax and spend, government-run, universal healthcare plan or the Republican’s lower tax, reduced cost health insurance plan? Etc., etc., etc. The biggest challenge for each side now is to properly package their brand of government to the swayable, undecided voting women of America.

Of course, the real winner this week was the media industry itself. Sure the Republican’s scolded the media for the way they handled Governor Palin’s personal issues, but it was grist for the mill and it drove ratings. Controversy and conflict are the key elements to a compelling story and nobody in the media business could have written a better script than the one that evolved this week. The “Maverick” and the “Pit-bull” against the “Change Agent” and the “Washington Insider.” The pundits loved it. And, when there was no new news, the media created all the conflict it needed and produced hours and hours of intense, emotional arguments by booking zealous advocates from both sides of the aisle.

This is the news cycle of the year — commercially friendly, fully sponsored and completely sold out. Which begs the question, what’s going to happen to the media industry after the election? Where’s Aaron Sorkin when you need him? Shelly Palmer


About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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