2020 Vice Presidential Debate Ratings: Fox News, ABC Are Most-Watched Networks

By A.J. Katz Comment

*UPDATE (5:30 p.m. ET) Nielsen has released final live-plus-same-day data for last night’s vice presidential debate, and it’s reporting that a total of 57.9 million viewers watched across 18 networks airing the event live or on tape delay.

In addition to traditional TV viewing, this 57.9 million figure includes out-of-home viewing as well as connected TV viewing. Contribution coming from connected TVs can be as much as 11% for televised political events.

The 57.9 million viewers makes Biden-Harris 2020 the second-most-watched vice presidential debate ever, only behind Biden-Palin in 2008, which drew 69.9 million viewers.

Nielsen-measured national outlets who carried last night’s debate, and are included in the 57.9 million: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Telemundo, Univision, PBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, BET, BET HER, CNNe* (tape delay), FBN, Newsmax, Newsy, Vice and WGNA.

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ORIGINAL: 2:52 p.m. ET:

The 2020 vice presidential debate, featuring incumbent Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris, was a substantive one; at least relative to the slugfest their running mates participated in the previous week. However, interesting debates don’t always draw the largest audiences (don’t tell that to the world’s most famous fly), and while last night’s debate won’t draw anywhere near the audience that Trump-Biden, Part 1 did, the ratings should still be strong considering current events.

Moderated by USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page, Wednesday night’s 2020 vp debate did indeed draw a formidable audience: 50.5 million total viewers across seven networks, per early Nielsen Media data. That number will certainly grow once final data arrives this evening.

Out of the 50.5 million total viewers, 25.30 million watched on cable (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC), while 25.24 million watched on the major English-language broadcast nets (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC). PBS’ total will be added later.

A remarkable split.

The above total also doesn’t include Bloomberg or C-SPAN. Nor does it include connected TV viewing (although those figures will be factored in this evening when Nielsen sends out a final advisory).

*Update (6 p.m. ET): The below numbers are final and include out-of-home.

  • 2020 Vice Presidential Debate (9-10:45 p.m. ET) | Total Viewers / A25-54 demo

Fox News– 11,898,000/3,097,000
ABC– 9,832,000/3,407,000
CNN– 7,705,000/2,924,000
MSNBC– 6,918,000/1,480,000
NBC– 6,802,000/2,590,000
CBS- 5,382,000/1,767,000
Fox– 4,299,000/1,758,000
PBS– 2,300,000
Telemundo– 1,097,000/ 428,000
Univision– 1,029,000 / 423,000
Fox Biz– 459,000/125,000
BET– 408,000 / 170,000
Newsmax– 333,000 / 102,000
WGN America– 146,000 / 54,000
Vice– 93,000 / 35,000
Newsy– 46,000 / 26,000
BET Her– 35,000 / 5,000

It’s another impressive finish for Fox News, which was by far the go-to network for the first presidential debate, and now No. 1 for the vice presidential debate. The outlet is attracting double-digit million viewers for these debates, something no other cable network had ever done until this year, and delivering significant growth in 2020 versus 2016; not only for debates featuring Trump, but apparently debates without Trump.

CNN (and MSNBC) also posted significant audience growth from the 2016 vp debate, although MSNBC is still having issues drawing adults 25-54.

ABC was the top network among adults 25-54 and actually grew both in total viewers and in demo viewers from 2016. However, the trend for broadcast news overall was not quite as rosy. NBC and CBS were down from 2016, both in total viewers and among adults 25-54. This was also true for both networks during the first presidential debate.

While total viewership for this debate was pretty evenly split between broadcast and cable TV (at least according to early data), the broadcast newsers actually delivered more adults 25-54 than the cable newsers. MSNBC is the primary culprit here, to be frank. Fox News and CNN were the second- and third-most-watched networks among adults 25-54, while MSNBC only averaged 1.4 million from the demo, last of the major broadcast and cable news outlets.

Looking at the total from a historical perspective, Pence-Harris is +36% from the most recent vp debate, Tim Kaine-Pence in 2016 (which had been the lowest-rated debate since 2000). At present, it’s down from vp Joe Biden-Paul Ryan 2012 (51.4 million), but it will likely exceed that number once final data arrives this evening.

The record audience for a vp debate is 2008, Biden-Sarah Palin.

Vice Presidential Debate Telecasts: 1976 – 2020

YEAR NETWORK DATE CANDIDATES RATING % Households (in millions) Total Viewers (in millions)
2020 7 Networks Oct. 7 Pence– Harris 40.7 57.9
2016 9 Networks Oct. 4 Pence– Kaine 37.2
2012 12 Networks Oct. 12 Biden – Ryan  31.9  36.4 51.4
2008 11 Networks Oct. 2 Biden – Palin  41.7  47.8 69.9
2004 6 Networks Oct. 5 Cheney – Edwards  28.1  30.9 43.6
2000 6 Networks Oct. 5 Cheney – Lieberman  21.0  21.5 29
1996 4 Networks Oct. 9 Gore – Kemp  19.7  19.1 26.6
1992 4 Networks Oct. 13 Quayle – Gore – Stockdale  35.9  33.4  51.2
1988 3 Networks Oct. 5 Quayle – Bentsen  33.6  30.4  46.9
1984 3 Networks Oct. 11 Bush – Ferraro  43.6  37.0  56.7
1976 3 Networks Oct. 15 Dole – Mondale  35.5  25.3  43.2

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