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Obama's YouTube Speech Tops TV Ratings

BY Ari Melber | Tuesday, March 25 2008

One week later, it's clear that Americans heard The Speech.

About 3.8 million people have now watched Barack Obama's Philadelphia address through the campaign's official YouTube channel, which has over 40,000 subscribers. "It is the highest viewed video ever uploaded by a presidential candidate to YouTube, surpassing Mike Huckabee's Chuck Norris endorsement video," says Steve Grove, who directs News and Politics for YouTube. Aside from the Obama channel, which promotes videos through blogs, news sites and supporter networks, another 520,000 people watched excerpts of the speech uploaded by random YouTube users. Taken together, the total YouTube viewers for Obama's speech over the past week beat all the cable channels combined. Last Tuesday, about four million viewers tuned into one of the three cable channels to watch the speech.

This is not the first time that Obama's YouTube audience has rivaled cable news. His second most popular video ever, a rebuttal to President Bush's final State of the Union, drew 1.3 million views. The President's actual address reached 3.2 million homes through a Fox News broadcast, making it the seventh highest program on cable that week. It is not a direct comparison, since the Presidential address is widely promoted and broadcast on many stations. Yet without the bully pulpit of the White House and its built-in television coverage -- or the high cost of campaign ads -- a candidate can now reach supporters and interested voters with unfiltered, even substantive addresses.

Of course, Obama's most popular YouTube video was itself a response to videos of Jeremiah Wright that had riveted cable news and YouTube. "If it wasn't for the replaying of Wright's remarks on YouTube, Obama wouldn't have been forced to give the speech on race in the first place," contends Slate's John Dickerson, yet "Obama decried the YouTube era of politics that reduces everyone to small, grainy clips endlessly replayed on cable news." But YouTube, just like television, depends on the programming. Salacious clips can always draw viewers. What is remarkable here is the overwhelming public demand for deeper, unfiltered campaign information -- regardless of who voters support. So Obama was not decrying the "YouTube era of politics" in his speech, as Dickerson argues, so much as the way that political brawling and cable bickering become the lowest common denominator of our entire public discourse:

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism.. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card...We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time'...

Millions of people heard that appeal on television, and millions more heard it on YouTube. Bill Burton, Obama's spokesman, told me that the campaign embraces web outreach to route around the television filter, and rather than assail YouTube politics, Obama "was speaking to the ease with which political opponents can unfairly splice quotes and how quickly they are circulated and on television news." Apparently the campaign thinks that a higher road is possible for YouTube politics, just like regular politics, if you give it a chance.