Debate big news at MSNBC

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What could be the final debate of the Democratic primary cycle worked wonders for MSNBC, giving it the news channel's highest ratings ever.

More than 7.8 million viewers tuned in to the sometimes caustic debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, according to data released Wednesday by Nielsen Media Research. It ranked as the third-most-watched debate this election season, behind only ABC's Democratic presidential debate on the eve of the New Hampshire presidential primary in January and CNN's Kodak Theatre showdown this month.

It was far above anything else in MSNBC's 11-year history. The previous record was 3.7 million viewers who tuned in on March 19, 2003, for the coverage of the beginning of the Iraq War. Tuesday's debate averaged 3.2 million viewers in the news demographic of adults 25-54.

MSNBC's debate almost didn't happen thanks to an ill-conceived remark by fill-in host David Shuster that enraged the Clinton campaign and imperiled her attendance. But with Clinton seemingly on the ropes after a string of primary losses, the campaign could hardly afford to miss a chance to duel with Obama.

For NBC News senior vp Phil Griffin, the interest in the debate was obviously critical for the high ratings. But it's something he hopes will continue for a channel that is perennially behind the ratings to Fox News Channel and CNN.

"The exciting thing for us is that I think a lot of people have found us in this election cycle," Griffin said. "It has exposed us to a whole new audience, and they're aware of us in ways that they have never been. It's exciting that we can deliver an audience like that."

The debate, which was moderated by "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams and Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, also aired on NBC's broadcast affiliates in Ohio. Because it aired with the same commercials on broadcast TV and MSNBC, the 800,000-1 million or so viewers who made it Ohio's top TV broadcast of the night were counted in MSNBC's national rating.

Even with that bump from broadcast TV, it's still a lot more viewers than MSNBC has ever had. It beat "American Idol" by 44% in the Ohio markets, which included Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. And it was ahead of NBC's expectations.

For his part, Griffin hopes that the network is able to capitalize on the new attention.

"We've got to continue doing what we're doing," he said. "I don't know how many opportunities we can get for 8 million viewers, but we're going to try."
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