Presidential Debate Hits 32-Year Record in Gross Ratings

Presidential Debate 1 October 3 - H 2012
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Presidential Debate 1 October 3 - H 2012

Final Nielsen ratings are in for Wednesday's many broadcasts of the first presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney -- and not only do they reveal a new winner, gross viewership broke a 32-year record.

Across broadcast and cable networks carrying the 90-minute debate, Nielsen reports that 67.2 million viewers watched the debate in homes. No first round debate has hit that high of a number since President Jimmy Carter went up against Republican candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980 for 80.6 million viewers. (Subsequent second and third round debates have topped last night's haul.)

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Despite initial bragging rights to NBC News and this afternoon's cable returns from Fox News Channel, the biggest take among total viewers and the adults 25-54 demo goes to ABC. ABC News' coverage of the debate pulled 11.25 million viewers, 4.65 million of which were in the key demo. All three of the broadcast networks' -- ABC, NBC, CBS -- final numbers eclipse their cable competition (CNN and MSNBC), where FNC still maintains its healthy win.

Other networks that aired the debate include Univision, Telemundo, CNN Espanol, Current TV and the Fox Broadcast Network.

Adding online streaming -- YouTube and both aired the debate -- The New York Times estimates aggregate viewership north of 70 million viewers. And Nielsen's TV returns don't even take into account the viewers that watched the debate in a public space.

The last first round debate to approach these numbers was in 2004, when President George W. Bush and candidate John Kerry brought in 62.5 million viewers. The first debate between Obama and John McCain in 2008 took place on a Friday and only brought in 52.4 million viewers.