Tuesday night’s so-called debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was seen by a whopping 73.1 million viewers Tuesday, according to Nielsen. That’s a huge number— more than triple the audience of this year’s Oscars— but it wasn’t quite the blockbuster as the first debate of the 2016 general election. That Trump versus Hillary Clinton opening slugfest drew a record 84 million viewers.
It is certainly possible some audiences were turned off by Trump’s nasty, bullying demeanor, dampening enthusiasm for the event. But it seems more likely the 2016 debate was something of a unicorn, given it marked the first time Trump had faced off against a Democratic opponent in a debate and the first time a woman had been in a presidential general election campaign. Indeed, the 2020 tune-in easily beat the numbers for the 2012 showdown between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, which was seen by 67.2 million viewers. On the other hand, the 2020 numbers include viewing done outside homes and via connected TV sets, data which wasn’t incorporated into earlier ratings reports. Nielsen estimates connected TVs could have boosted the 2020 ratings by as much as 11 percent.
Another big change between 2020 and 2016 is how much better cable-news networks did overall this cycle versus the first debate of 2016. Four years ago, NBC actually drew the most viewers for its coverage of the Clinton-Trump debate, with just under 18 million viewers; this year, it drew about half as many eyeballs, with 9.7 million linear viewers. It helped that the network’s Lester Holt moderated the 2016 debate, of course, but NBC also had a boost from that night’s episode of The Voice, which drew nearly 12 million viewers. This time, the premiere of The Weakest Link brought in just under 6 million— a great number by fall 2020 standards, but another sign of how much the broadcast ecosystem has withered in four years. By contrast, NBC’s MSNBC snagged 7.2 million for the 2020 debate, up from 4.9 million in 2016.
The big ratings winner in this year’s debate, however, was Fox News Channel: With the network’s Chris Wallace moderating, the Trump-friendly network notched 17.8 million viewers, a gain of more than 50 percent from 11.4 million in 2016. CNN landed in the middle: It averaged 8.3 million viewers for the debate Tuesday, a decline of 20 percent versus 2016 (9.9 million). ABC, meanwhile, was the top-rated broadcast network with 12.6 million viewers, followed by CBS (6.3 million) and Fox Broadcasting (5.4 million.) Nielsen tallied audiences from 16 networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, Telemundo, Univision, PBS, CNN, CNNe, Fox Business Network, Fox News, MSNBC, Newsmax, Newsy, Vice, and WGN America.
Interestingly, among older viewers — those aged 55 and up — Tuesday’s Trump-Biden debate actually drew a slightly larger overall audience (40.5 million viewers) than the first 2016 debate (40 million.) But the overall audience declined because viewership fell by around 25 percent with audiences aged 18-34 (8.4 million versus 12.8 million) and dropped around 20 percent with viewers between the ages of 35 and 54 (20.3 million versus 25.3 million). Tune-in among kids was also down by a few million, but given what transpired last night, that’s probably for the best.
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