Sean Spicer--new TV Star?
He is no match for “The Young and the Restless.” But he is beating “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary whose early tenure has prompted political fireworks and late-night parodies, may be struggling to settle in behind the lectern. On the airwaves, however, he is daytime television’s new big hit.
Mr. Spicer’s briefings, carried live by the major cable news networks, are pulling in an average of 4.3 million viewers, according to data from Nielsen. Audiences across Fox News, MSNBC and CNN grow by an average of 10 percent when Mr. Spicer comes onscreen to discuss the latest news on President Trump, statistics show.
The soap opera at the White House is outscoring actual soaps like “General Hospital” and “The Bold and the Beautiful,” which typically air around the same time. Mr. Spicer’s ratings are on par with prime-time entertainment like “MasterChef Junior” on Fox and the ABC sitcom “Dr. Ken,” which draw around four million viewers each.
The big ratings offer a quantifiable measure for what has become a truism in Washington: Three weeks into the Trump administration, Mr. Spicer’s daily joust with reporters — peppered with fiery exchanges, memorable malapropisms and some much discussed dissembling — are now must-see-TV for the political class.
“There’s huge interest in everything Trump does, and Sean is benefiting from that,” said Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who helped lead Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “Depending on your perspective, you either tune in to watch Sean defend the indefensible, or to watch media bias in action.”
The interest in Mr. Spicer’s briefings coincides with a spike in cable news viewership over all. Since Inauguration Day, Fox News’s audience from 1 to 3 p.m. on weekdays has grown to about 2.2 million, up 62 percent from the previous year. CNN and MSNBC have also seen big increases in daytime audiences.
With Mr. Trump dominating the morning news cycle with his provocative Twitter postings, Mr. Spicer’s afternoon briefing is a highly anticipated forum for journalists to parse and probe the president’s words. The news networks have taken to teasing the briefing for viewers, broadcasting an empty lectern in the corner of the screen in the minutes before Mr. Spicer arrives.
Mr. Spicer, a famous-for-D.C. type who is now actually famous, is also attracting interest, although perhaps not for reasons he would like.
His lambasting of the White House press corps, false claims about inauguration attendance and occasional use of props were viciously parodied by Saturday Night Live last weekend — with the actress Melissa McCarthy portraying Mr. Spicer — causing consternation inside the White House, Politico reported.
Mr. Spicer has what some describe as the least desirable job in Washington, balancing his relationship with reporters while spinning on behalf of a president who has shown open hostility toward the press. Mr. Trump, a media maestro himself, monitors Mr. Spicer’s performance and often critiques it afterward.
Mr. Spicer has retained the official backing of the White House. Stephen K. Bannon, a chief White House strategist, described Mr. Spicer’s combative interaction with the press as “a badge of honor.”
Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s first press secretary, said that his post-inauguration press briefings in 2001 were also carried live by the cable networks, but interest waned a few weeks into the administration. Briefings during the Obama administration followed a similar pattern, with viewership fluctuating depending on events.
But while Mr. Bush did not have Twitter at his disposal, Mr. Fleischer said that Mr. Spicer’s task was not a lot different than his own. “The job of the press secretary is to elaborate on what the president is thinking and why,” he said.
“Whether the thought is contained in a tweet, or in a carefully worded speech or the latest gossip that came from the closed-door meeting, the briefing has the same dynamic.”
At one point, Mr. Fleischer recalled, Donald Rumsfeld, then the secretary of defense, became a more familiar figure for daytime audiences than the press secretary, when cable networks carried live Pentagon briefings in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Mr. Rumsfeld was on television so often that Mr. Bush bestowed him a nickname: “teen matinee idol.”