Debate Ratings Primer: A Brief History of Presidential Showdowns (And Other Relevant Numbers)

The Super Bowl in September? Probably not.
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Perhaps not since the Thrilla in Manila has a televised clash between two human beings (not wearing football helmets) been so feverishly anticipated. 
Monday night's presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the first of three scheduled before the Nov. 8 election, is already being lauded as the TV event of the year. Some politicos and pundits, whose unchecked enthusiasm has the subtlety of a red-white-and-blue lobster bib, have speculated that north of 100 million viewers might tune into the showdown. Such a number would surge past all previous presidential debates and put the event on par with the Super Bowl — but that's a not terribly realistic prospect.
February's Super Bowl 50, the third most-watched telecast in U.S. history, averaged 111.9 million viewers. That's 85 percent of the number of Americans who even bothered to vote in the 2012 election.  Over the course of last three presidential elections, the first debates averaged 60.7 million viewers. And those were in years when considerably fewer Americans were consuming their media on other platforms. 

"We have to take into account how many people are going to watch online," says Sam Armando, lead investment director at media firm Mediavest-Spark. "The ways people consume have changed drastically over the last four years — but with everything that's going on and the headlines that these candidates are creating, I wouldn't be surprised if we get something that is up 25 or 30 percent over what it did four years ago." 
Four years ago, the first debate between President Barack Obama and GOP hopeful Mitt Romney set a 30-plus year high for debate audiences. More than 67 million viewers watched across the ten or so networks carrying the feed, the most since the initial 1980 showdown between incumbent Jimmy Carter and Republican rival Ronald Reagan netted 80 million. 
Working in Monday's favor is the unprecedented interest in this election. Ever since the first Republican primary debate back in August 2015 surprised everyone with a record-shattering 24 million viewers for Fox News Channel, the TV media has gone out of its way program events for the candidates, particularly Trump, to varying degrees of ratings success. (Not counting the multi-network totals for a handful of convention speeches, nothing has come close to that auspicious kickoff.)
Playing devils advocate for a moment, there is some evidence that points towards a slightly less juggernaut-ish performance for the debate. Summer's Republican and Democratic National Conventions, while huge, weren't much bigger from recent presidential election years. In fact, both fell shy of 2015's most-watched night with Clinton's DNC speech peaking at 33.7 million viewers and Trump's RNC address getting total 34.9 million. 
However high (or super-high) the debate gets, nobody will be making a mint off of it. The debate itself is commercial free. And while all of the many participating networks (at least those that are ad-supported) have successfully charged a premium during the respective post-shows, not all brands are eager to be associated with the event. 
"Some advertisers want to take advantage of those impressions that are available but others want to steer clear of the whole thing," adds Armando. "Some just don't want their brand associated with some of the views and the things that are said. There's a little bit of both going on right now."