Last Night’s Debate Ratings Were Down Sharply from 2016

Initial ratings data indicates fewer television viewers tuned in this time around
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Television ratings have long been a point of fixation for Donald Trump. The president has frequently taken breaks from his various duties to tweet about how watched awards shows, professional sports games, and other televised events were. On Wednesday, he tweeted about watch numbers for his first debate performance of 2020, claiming the debate ratings were, at least on cable, the highest of all time.

A media advisory issued by Nielsen this afternoon estimates that a total of 73.1 million people watched the debate on broadcast and cable television, down sharply across the board from 2016.

Four years ago, the first presidential debate brought in a record-breaking 84 million viewers. Previously, the highest-rated debate was the October 28, 1980 matchup between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. An estimated 81 million people watched that time.

The president’s tweet about “highest cable television ratings,” might be a reference to the ratings specifically at Fox News. The employer of debate moderator Chris Wallace logged 17.8 million viewers during the debate, making it the most-watched outlet. ABC came in next with 12.6 million, NBC with 9.7 million, and CNN with 8.3 million. Nielsen also tracked Telemundo, Univision, CBS, MSNBC, Newsy, Vice, WGNA, Newsmax, and PBS member stations, but not C-SPAN.

Ratings numbers may not provide the full picture of how many Americans actually watched the debate, as the Nielsen figures do not include viewers who watch online–a share of the audience which grows every year. It is believed that around a quarter of U.S. households are now “cord cutters” who receive all their content online.


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