TV Ratings: First Democratic Debate Draws 15M Viewers, Short of 2016 Openers

Preliminary numbers from the NBC-MSNBC-Telemundo simulcast put it way ahead of kickoff debates from 2012 and 2008.
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The first presidential primary debate of the 2020 campaign drew a big audience — but not 2016 big.  

The debate featuring 10 Democratic hopefuls on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo averaged a combined 15.26 million viewers, a strong showing but not quite up to the historically huge levels of the first debates of the 2016 cycle. 

More than half the total TV audience (8.67 million) watched on NBC. MSNBC averaged 5.87 million for the two-hour broadcast, and Telemundo drew 719,000 for its Spanish-language telecast. The debate drew a combined 4.3 million viewers in the key news demographic of adults 25-54.

Wednesday's telecast ends up a good bit behind the first Republican debate of the 2016 election cycle, which drew a massive 24 million viewers on Fox News, the channel's biggest audience ever. That debate was then-candidate Donald Trump's first time facing other candidates. 

It nearly, but didn't quite, reach the level the first Democratic primary debate in October 2015, which averaged 15.46 million viewers for CNN. No other primary debate or candidate forum for either party in the 2016 cycle equaled the first ones.  

In preliminary numbers earlier in the day, NBC drew a 7.0 household rating in metered markets. MSNBC's simulcast of the debate drew a healthy 4.7 in metered markets, and Telemundo got a 0.6. 

The 2016 campaign was an outlier in recent history, with primary debates pulling in much bigger audiences than in the prior two elections. In the 2012 campaign, the largest audience for a primary debate was 7.6 million, for a Republican debate on ABC in December 2011. Four years earlier, the largest primary draw came in April 2008 — 10.7 million, also on ABC.

The first debate of the 2012 cycle delivered 3.53 million viewers for Fox News; four years earlier, the first debate averaged 2.26 million on MSNBC. Wednesday's broadcast topped every primary debate in both of those cycles.

NBC's Tonight Show and Late Night and CBS' Late Show all aired live episodes after the debate (as did The Daily Show on Comedy Central) and got small ratings bumps. The Late Show topped the list with a 2.5 household rating in metered markets, while Tonight came in at 1.8; both were up slightly from preliminary numbers for Monday and Tuesday. Late Night was at 1.2, up a bit from 1.0 Monday and Tuesday, and The Daily Show at 0.6.

CBS' Big Brother was the top show on the broadcast networks after the debate, thought its 4.53 million viewers and 1.1 rating among adults 18-49 were down a bit from Tuesday's premiere (4.93 million, 1.3). 

June 27, noon: Updated with final debate ratings.