Friday's debate down 16% from 2004

52.4 mil tuned in, compared to 62.5 mil for Bush-Kerry

NEW YORK -- Friday night's debate not only wasn't the ratings-buster that some predicted, but it was also down 16% compared with the first Bush-Kerry debate in 2004.

Nielsen Media Research said late Monday that 52.4 million viewers tuned in to see the debate from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. That's compared to 62.5 million viewers who watched the Sept. 30, 2004, debate.

That was despite being on several more networks Friday than existed in 2004. It was an ironic development in a presidential campaign that featured no incumbent and has been breaking interest and ratings records throughout the primary season and into the nominating conventions. One likely explanation was that it happened on Friday night, which is not known for its high levels of television watching.

Among the networks, ABC and Fox News Channel brought in the most viewers. The debate was also carried by CBS, Fox, NBC, Telefutura, Telemundo, BBC America, CNBC, CNN and MSNBC. ABC averaged 11 million viewers and a 3.5 rating in adults 18-49, Nielsen Media Research said. NBC averaged 7.1 million viewers and a 2.3 rating. CBS came in second for the night. Fox Broadcasting's coverage of the debate, which was anchored by Shepard Smith, averaged 3.9 million viewers. It averaged a 1.3 rating in adults 18-49.

Among the cable networks, Fox News Channel won in total viewers while CNN won in the demos. Fox News Channel had 8.2 million viewers for the debate, followed by CNN with 7.1 million and MSNBC 3.9 million. CNN was ahead in adults 25-54, adults 18-34 and adults 18-49. It was Fox News Channel's second-most-watched presidential debate in the network's history, with the top honors going to the Sept. 30, 2004, debate between Bush and Kerry. Fox News was down 14% compared to 2004 while CNN's viewership rose 64% and MSNBC's 229% compared with four years ago.

At the same time, Friday night's debate is only the prelude to two more presidential debates and one vice presidential match-up that will happen this week. Thursday night's debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden is likely to become a big winner in the ratings. And there are presidential debates Oct. 7 from Nashville and Oct. 15 from Hempstead, N.Y.

Even among households, Friday night's debate averaged a 31.6 rating (36.2 million) compared with a 39.4 rating (and 43 million households) for 2004. In the analysis after the speech, ABC won with 8.3 million viewers between 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. while NBC averaged 7.1 million viewers and CBS averaged 6.1 million viewers.

Only ABC had a political-themed lead-in, a special "20/20" featuring Diane Sawyer's interviews with McCain and Obama. "20/20" averaged 7 million viewers, in second place against a repeat of the CBS drama "The Mentalist" that averaged 7.9 million viewers.