Fox News Is Most-Watched for First Trump-Biden Debate

By A.J. Katz Comment

The first presidential debate of 2020 was chaos, and that chaos had mixed effects on the TV ratings.

Tuesday night’s debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden drew 73.1 million total viewers, according to Nielsen data.

Out of home viewing as well as connected TV viewing are included in the 2020 total figures. Contribution coming from CTVs can be as much as +11% for televised political events, such as a debate.

The opening debate of 2016 featuring Trump and Hillary Clinton drew a record 84 million viewers. That’s a 13% drop off between Debate 1 of 2016 (which so happens to be the most-watched debate of all time) and Debate 1 of 2020.

Despite the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) chairman Frank Fahrenkopf previously saying he expected the debate on all platforms to total 120 million, the 73.1 million total viewer count isn’t anything to scoff at. Quite the contrary. Only Clinton-Trump 1 (84 million) and Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan 1980 (80.6) averaged more viewers. It’s worth noting that Carter-Reagan aired on only three networks (ABC, NBC, CBS).

Tuesday night’s debate, on the other hand, aired on 16 TV networks that are publicly rated by Nielsen, and two that are not (C-SPAN and Bloomberg) as well as several streaming services.

Here’s major broadcast and cable network ratings breakdown:

Debate (9:03 p.m. – 10:39 p.m.) | Total Viewers / A25-54 demo
Fox News–  17,812,000 / 5,308,000
ABC –  12,620,000 / 4,886,000
NBC– 9,666,000 / 4,114,000
CNN– 8,287,000 / 3,524,000
MSNBC– 7,189,000 / 1,726,000
CBS– 6,379,000 / 2,185,000
FOX– 5,436,000 / 2,473,000
PBS – 2,700,000 / N/A
Telemundo – 1,500,000 / 607,000
Univision– 1,358,000 / 577,000

With its star news personality in the moderator’s chair, Chris Wallace, Fox News was the go-to network among Americans for live coverage of the debate, drawing a cable news-record 17.8 million viewers in total. Broadcast networks ABC and NBC followed.

ABC’s debate coverage took up the entirety of its prime time (8-11 p.m.), whereas NBC and CBS presented only two hours of debate coverage (9-11 p.m.ET). NBC News’ debate coverage had the premiere of The Weakest Link as its lead-in, while CBS News’ debate coverage had Love Island as its lead-in.

Fox News (+57%) and MSNBC (+47%) were the only two of the seven major broadcast and cable news networks to post audience growth from the first debate of 2016.

For Fox News, last night’s debate is officially the second-highest-rated telecast in network history. The network’s top-rated telecast, the Aug. 6, 2015 Republican presidential primary debate, remains the highest-rated nonsports cable broadcast of all time with 24 million viewers.

 

Additionally, a historical debate ratings breakdown:

Presidential Debate Telecasts: 1960 – 2020

YEAR NETWORK DATE CANDIDATES RATING % Households (in millions) Total Viewers (in millions)
2020 16 Networks Sept. 29 (Debate #1) Trump – Biden 40.2 48.6 73.1
2016 14 Networks Sept. 26 (Debate #1) H. Clinton – Trump 47.6 56.4 84.0
2016 11 Networks Oct. 9 (Debate #2) 37.1 44 66.55
2016 13 Networks Oct. 19 (Debate #3) 41.7 49.5 71.6
2012 12 Networks Oct. 3 (Debate #1) Obama – Romney 40.4 46.2 67.2
 2012 12 Networks Oct. 16 (Debate #2)   40 45.6 65.6
 2012 11 Networks Oct. 22 (Debate #3) 35.9 41.2 59.2
2008 13 Networks Sept. 26 (Debate #1) Obama – McCain 31.6 36.2 52.4
 2008 13 Networks Oct. 7 (Debate #2)   38.8 44.4 63.2
 2008 12 Networks Oct. 15**** (Debate #3)   35.0 40.0 56.5
2004 7 Networks Sept. 30 (Debate #1) Bush – Kerry 39.4 43.0 62.5
 2004 7 Networks Oct. 8 (Debate #2) 29.6 32.5 46.7
 2004  7 Networks Oct. 13**** (Debate #3) 32.6 36.3 51.2
2000 7 Networks Oct. 3*** Gore – Bush 31.7 32.4 46.6
2000 7 Networks Oct. 11**** 26.8 27.5 37.6
 2000 7 Networks Oct. 17 25.9 26.3 37.7
1996 5 Networks Oct. 6 Clinton – Dole 31.6 30.6 36.1
1996 5 Networks Oct. 16 * 26.1 25.3 36.3
1992 4 Networks Oct. 11 ** Bush – Clinton – Perot 38.3 35.7 62.4
1992 4 Networks Oct. 15 46.3 43.1 69.9
1992  4 Networks Oct. 19 45.2 42.1 66.9
1988 3 Networks Sept. 25 Bush – Dukakis 36.8 33.3 65.1
 1988  3 Networks Oct. 13 35.9 32.5 67.3
1984 3 Networks Oct. 7 Reagan – Mondale 45.3 38.5 65.1
 1984  3 Networks Oct. 21 46.0 39.1 67.3
1980 3 Networks Oct 28 Carter – Reagan 58.9 45.8 80.6
1976 3 Networks Sept. 23 Ford – Carter 53.5 38.0 69.7
 1976  3 Networks Oct. 6 52.4 37.3 63.9
 1976  3 Networks Oct. 22 47.8 34.0 62.7
1960 3 Networks Sept. 26 Nixon – Kennedy 59.5 28.1 N/A
 1960  3 Networks Oct. 7 59.1 27.9 N/A
 1960  3 Networks Oct. 13 61.0 28.8 N/A
 1960  3 Networks Oct. 21 57.8 27.3 N/A

Source: Nielsen Live+Same Day. Viewing Prior to 2006 is Live.

 

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