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Today's State of the Union might be the least watched in 20 years. That's not a bad thing.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Tonight's State of the Union might be the least watched address of the past two decades.

Viewership for the speech has declined steadily since at least 1993, when Bill Clinton's first message garnered nearly 67 million viewers. Every year under President Obama, fewer and fewer people have tuned in, with just 31.7 million television viewers last year.

That — combined with the trend of each president's last State of the Union being the least watched — means there will probably be an even smaller audience for this year's speech.

Online viewership hasn't made up for it

Last year the White House said about 1.2 million people watched the online stream of the speech.

While television is still the primary viewing mechanism for the large majority of Americans, more and more people are cutting the cord and no longer paying for cable — opting instead for online streaming services. In 2011, the number of Americans who own TVs began to decrease for the first time in 20 years. So this drop in viewership isn't hugely surprising, but streaming viewers haven't even come close to making up for it.

Debates haven't seen this drop

Debate viewership has remained much more level over time. In 1984, an average of 63 million people watched the presidential debates. In 2008 and 2012, an average of about 61 million people watched.

There is fluctuation in viewership based on how competitive a race is: In 1996, for instance, Bob Dole stood little chance against Clinton, and the debates drew on average 36 million viewers. But debate viewership hasn't seen the same consistent drop that the State of the Union has.

But that doesn't mean Americans don't care

The drop in viewership doesn't mean Americans don't care what the president has to say. We know this because the State of the Union has seen huge spikes when Americans have an especially compelling reason to listen.

Perhaps the most striking example is in 2003, when 62 million people tuned in to listen to George W. Bush justify the invasion of Iraq, which the US did two months later.

In 1993, Clinton's speech — which technically wasn't a State of the Union but was treated like one because a new president was addressing a joint session of Congress — outlined his four-pronged economic plan after 12 years of Republicans in the White House. It drew a massive audience of 67 million.

And in 2009, Barack Obama drew 52 million viewers after the US passed a $787 billion stimulus package to pull the country out of the Great Recession.

In short, if there's reason to tune in, Americans do. That's one explanation for why debates have stayed popular: They are informative and relevant to voters.

For today's speech, Obama has not promised any big announcements. He'll more likely focus on a review of his legacy in office — a topic that, if history is any guide, won't draw massive viewership.

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