Presidential Debates Set Ratings Records in 2016, but Does the Format Need to Change?

Americans turned to cable in historic numbers

The results are in, and 2016 delivered the most viewers of any presidential debate cycle in U.S. TV history. Wednesday's third and final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump brought in 71.6 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched debate ever, behind only Clinton-Trump I (84 million) and Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan on Oct. 28, 1980 (80.6 million).

The three Clinton-Trump debates and the Tim Kaine-Mike Pence vice presidential debate delivered a total of 259 million viewers, per data from Nielsen Media Research. The 1992 debate cycle held the previous record, with 250 million viewers watching the three George H. W. Bush-Bill Clinton-Ross Perot debates, and the Dan Quayle-Al Gore-James Stockdale vice presidential debate. 

"These presidential and vice-presidential debates were appointment television, and advertisers took advantage of the huge audiences that tuned in to watch them live," Fox News vp of eastern sales Dominick Rossi told Adweek. "Many of the movie companies promoted their latest releases. Much like the Super Bowl, multiple clients launched new campaigns during these debates."

Rossi also noted that advertiser feedback for Fox News has been positive.

"Clients were thankful that their spots were positioned so close to the start and end of the debates, thus reaching the largest audiences possible," he said. "And the praise keeps pouring in for Chris Wallace for how well he moderated the final debate, which is the source of great pride for everyone in the company."

More people watched the final Clinton-Trump debate on Fox News Channel than on any other network. 

Interest in cable news is as high as it's ever been, and that trend showed up in debate viewership. A total of 91.7 million viewers watched the four debates across CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in 2016. That's a 10.5 percent rise from the networks' 2012 total of 83 million and a 3 percent increase over 2008 (89 million).

Why the improvement?

"Cable news wasn't quite as partisan eight or 12 years ago as it is now, and each network is bringing an opinionated, devoted audience to these debates," said Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcast and online at Poynter. "I think that's why you have seen ratings for cable through the roof."

But how was Clinton-Trump 2016 able to attract so many viewers considering all the other programming options out there?

"One of the major ingredients here is uncertainty and unpredictability," Tompkins said. "In previous elections, you think you probably know where the race is and what the people are going to do. That's not the case here, and that makes for compelling TV."

While ratings have been great, some think The Commission on Presidential Debates should make some changes to the format for 2020. "They need to do away with the town-hall format," said Tompkins. "Journalists like Chris Wallace can sit there and ask hard-hitting questions that matter, as opposed to asking, 'What do you admire in the other person?' That's an interesting sound bite, but not very illuminating."

Like many, Tompkins also supports doing away with a live audiences in debate halls.

But there also are positives to the current debate format.

"They give insight into a person's character, a tiny peak into whether or not a person can hold it together when things aren't going well," Tompkins said. "Regardless of how rehearsed they might be, debates have historically given us a glimpse into someone when the heat is on, and I think that's important."

Whether or not debate format changes are made in 2020 remains to be seen.

Even though we may never see two more polarizing and recognizable candidates again, interest and viewership of televised debates will almost certainly continue to be high. Hopefully that interest translates into people heading to the polls on Nov. 8.

Recommended articles