Final Presidential Debate Draws 63 Million Viewers

It's a drop from the first face-off, but double last week's dueling town halls

donald trump and joe biden presidential debate
In early numbers, the debate drew 57.4 million total viewers across seven networks. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Headshot of A.J. Katz

The second and final presidential debate of 2020 between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was a bit more substantial and far more civil than the first debate last month.

But the ratings for Thursday’s face-off represent a big drop from the first debate’s audience.

Last night’s event drew 63 million total viewers across 15 networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, Telemundo, Univision, PBS, CNN, CNN en Espanol, Fox Business Network, Fox News, MSNBC, Newsmax, Newsy, Vice and WGN America—according to Nielsen.

That number represents a 14% drop—10 million people—from the 73.1 million viewers who watched the Sept. 29 debate, which was the second-most-watched debate ever, behind only Trump’s first debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016. That match drew 84 million viewers.

Compared with the final presidential debate of the 2016 campaign, which drew 71.6 million viewers, last night’s was down 12% in total viewers. And versus the second presidential debate of the 2016 campaign (which drew 67 million viewers but was not carried by NBC due to that network’s Sunday Night Football commitments), last night’s event was down 6% in total viewers.

The drop-off isn’t particularly surprising for a few reasons. First, the first debate was going up against Thursday Night Football, which aired on Fox last night. Second, more than 50 million Americans have already voted. Third, after what 73 million viewers witnessed during the first debate (which CNN’s Dana Bash infamously deemed a “shitshow“), many people undoubtedly expected a repeat performance.

Still, 63 million viewers is far larger than what the candidates have drawn during their recent televised town halls.

The debate more than doubled the combined ratings of last week’s dueling Trump and Biden broadcasts, which took place in lieu of the second scheduled presidential debate. Together, the two telecasts brought in 27 million total viewers.

Here are the major broadcast and cable network ratings breakdown, both in total viewers and the adults 25-54 demographic most coveted by news marketers:

Fox News: 14.7 million total viewers, 4.16 million in demo 
ABC: 10.7 million total viewers, 3.85 million in demo
NBC: 10.2 million total viewers, 3.91 million in demo
CNN: 7.2 million total viewers, 2.85 million in demo
MSNBC: 6.7 million total viewers, 1.50 million in demo
CBS: 5.5 million total viewers, 1.95 million in demo
PBS: 2.4 million total viewers
Telemundo: TBA
Univision: TBA

For the third consecutive debate (and second consecutive presidential debate), Fox News averaged the largest audience of any network airing the event, drawing 14.7 million total viewers. However, this number is down 17% from the cable news record 17.8 million total viewers who watched its live coverage of the first presidential debate.

Fox News also beat the competition when it came to the adults 25-54 demo, earning nearly 4.2 million.

ABC and NBC split second place honors. ABC once again devoted its entire three-hour primetime schedule to debate coverage (which it has done consistently throughout the debate season), and averaged nearly 10.8 million viewers, only behind Fox News.

NBC averaged nearly 10.2 million viewers, but averaged more adults 25-54 than any other network besides Fox News (3.9 million).

Unlike ABC and NBC, CBS presented only two hours of debate coverage (9-11 p.m. ET), with a new episode of Big Brother as its 8 p.m. lead-in. It averaged the smallest total viewership of the six major TV news networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC), but averaged more adults 25-54 than MSNBC.

NBC was the only network to post audience growth from the first debate, while Fox News and MSNBC saw audience growth vs. the final debate of 2016.

@ajkatztv A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.