TV Ratings: Democratic Debate's 18M Viewers Sets Record for Party

Preliminary ratings for the second wave of presidential candidates on NBC are up 15 percent over Wednesday's telecast.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The second half of the first Democratic presidential primary debate drew a bigger crowd than the first — in fact, the biggest audience ever for a Democratic primary debate.

Thursday's telecast drew 18.1 million TV viewers across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, per Nielsen figures. That's an 18 percent improvement on the 15.26 million who watched Wednesday's debate among 10 other presidential hopefuls. It also surpasses by a sizable margin the previous record for a Democratic primary debate: 15.46 million on CNN in October 2015.

The record for either major party's primary debates is 24 million viewers on Fox News in August 2015 for the first Republican debate of the 2016 cycle. CNN drew 23 million for one a month later.

In the key news demographic of adults 25-54, Thursday's coverage drew 5.3 million viewers, also a Democratic primary record. NBC News also says the debate drew 9 million viewers across a number of digital platforms, though that's a cumulative number and not an average minute audience.

Bigger numbers for Thursday's debate were expected, given that three of the top four candidates in most early polls — former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris — were on stage.

Both Wednesday's and Thursday's telecasts had larger audiences than every debate from the 2012 and 2008 primaries for both Democrats and Republicans.

Early numbers for Thursday's telecast put it up about 15 percent for the NBC portion, which drew an 8.1 household rating in metered markets versus 7.0 on Wednesday. MSNBC is at 5.3 (up from 4.7) and Telemundo at 0.8 (vs. 0.6 Wednesday). The combined average of 14.2 is running 15 percent ahead of Wednesday's 12.3.

The top show on the broadcast networks outside the debate was ABC's Holey Moley, which held up pretty well in its second episode with with a 0.9 rating among adults 18-49 and 4.26 million viewers (vs. 1.0 and 4.87 million for its premiere). The final two episodes of Life in Pieces on CBS drew 0.6 and 0.5 in adults 18-49 and averaged 3.57 million viewers.