TV Ratings: 71 Million Watched 2016 Election Returns Pour In; CNN and Fox News Set Records

Donald Trump Onstage - Getty - H 2016
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An unexpectedly close presidential race that led to an even more surprising victory for former reality TV star Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton blanketed television on Tuesday night — and well into Wednesday morning.

Per Nielsen Media, primetime coverage of the election coverage reached a total 71 million viewers across 13 networks with live reporting. That is for the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. block, however, and not the complete stretch of coverage. Early primetime ratings for the broadcast networks were off 10 percent from those of the 2012 election. With updates, NBC News led with NBC top (nearly 11.2 million viewers) — trailed by ABC (9.2 million), CBS (8.1 million) and Fox (4.3 million).

But cable news had much more to brag about. Keeping with the year's strong narrative, the biggest benefactor of this drawn-out election cycle saw Election Night's biggest showings. Coverage from the big three cable news outlets brought in another 31.4 million viewers. For cable, that represents a net gain of 6 million viewers from 2012. In primetime, CNN led cable news coverage with 13.3 million viewers between 8 and 11 p.m. Fox News Channel was a close second with 12.1 million viewers, while MSNBC earned 5.9 million. In cable news' ever-important adults 25-54 demographic, CNN led the three-hour block with 6.6 million. FNC averaged 4.6 million, while MSNBC earned 2.4 million.

Looking at the entire night of coverage, between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m. ET when the race was called, FNC averaged a dominant 12.2 million viewers. It topped CNN's 11.2 million viewers during the stretch, while MSNBC earned 5.2 million viewers. FNC saw a more decisive win during the climax of coverage, besting even CNN in the key demo for the hour between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Nearly 10 million viewers watched FNC when the race was called, with 6.5 million on CNN and 2.9 million on MSNBC.
CNN was first to send out a release, touting total day records for the network and its best election ever, though the same goes for FNC. The latter topped 2012 for its best election coverage to date and the strongest showing ever for the lengthy eight-hour block of coverage. For a good idea of how viewers moved around over the course of the night, CNN peaked earliest with 14 million viewers at the 10 p.m. hour. MSNBC peaked shortly afterwards with 6.8 million viewers at 11 p.m. FNC's biggest audience came late with 15.4 million viewers at midnight.

Call time obviously plays a bit of a factor in Election Night ratings. In 2012, networks started proclaiming Barack Obama the winner at 11:12 p.m. ET. It happened a little earlier in 2008, with the watch ending right at 11 p.m. The 2016 race didn't officially go to Trump until nearly 3 a.m. on the East Coast.

The last two elections were fairly evenly matched in terms of primetime coverage. But both of those Election Nights, in 2008 and 2012, don't even come close to the tally of the first debate between Clinton and Trump. Per Nielsen Media, the last Election Night saw an average 66.8 million viewers tuning in to live coverage on the 13 networks carrying the results between 8 and 11 p.m. ET. That was off 7 percent from the historic 2008 election, which saw 71.5 million viewers tune in to see Obama become the first black President of the United States (Nielsen included 14 networks in the tally that year).

No matter the final tally, this certainly has been a fall for live tune-in. The three presidential debates averaged a gross 74 million viewers across the three networks airing them, the first one averaging a record-breaking 84 million. And, on the non-election front, the final game of the World Series just set a 25-year high for baseball in nabbing 40 million viewers.

Ratings updates will come throughout Wednesday, with Nielsen confirming the final sum of primetime coverage in the late afternoon.