Debate ratings down from '04

Preliminary numbers indicate mediocre viewership

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Early indications from the broadcast networks point to a McCain-Obama debate that didn't set the world afire ratings-wise.

Data released over the weekend by Nielsen Media Research showed Friday night's debate not only didn't break any ratings records, it probably didn't come close to matching the first presidential debate between John Kerry and President Bush on Sept. 30, 2004. Friday night's debate averaged a 34.7 combined household rating, Nielsen Media Research said. It's down compared to the 39.4 household rating for Bush-Kerry.

It is higher than the first debates in either 2000 and 1996, however.

It's possible but not very likely that things will change on Monday, when Nielsen Media Research releases its final ratings data.

Among the broadcast networks, ABC averaged a 7.1 household rating/11 share compared to NBC's 6.2/10, CBS' 5.0/8 and Fox's 3.1/5. The debate ran many other places, including the Spanish-language networks and of course the English-language cable news channels, but reliable ratings weren't immediately available. PBS said Saturday that it averaged a 1.7 rating, which wasn't included in the Nielsen total.

The ratings disappointment runs counter to what pundits and even the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes them, had predicted on Friday before the debate starts.

"This is probably going to be the most-watched debate in history," Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chairman of the commission, told the audience Friday night at the Ford Center at the University of Mississippi before the debate was televised. And that was a fair prediction at the time, with the heated interest in the presidential election, the record-breaking ratings over the past year for debates and election coverage and also the continuing financial crisis.

But on the other hand, Friday night isn't known for its TV viewing, and the first debate in 2004 occurred on a Thursday.

Wednesday night's primetime address by President Bush was seen by 52.7 million viewers across the broadcast and cable channels, English- and Spanish-language, that carried the 17-minute speech live. And the acceptance speeches by Barack Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin at their respective conventions each broke records. Nielsen said 38.9 million viewers saw McCain's speech in primetime on Sept. 4, compared with 38.4 million for Obama from Invesco Field in Denver on Aug. 28.

But even 52 million is a long way from the record, which is held by the single presidential debate in 1980 that was seen by 80.6 million viewers. The other two recent ones that came anywhere near that were 69.9 million on Oct. 15, 1992, and 69.7 million on Sept. 23, 1976. And there wasn't a modern rating system in 1960, but it's likely to be the biggest presidential debate ever, on Oct. 13, 1960, when 61% of all TV households watched.