Tuesday debate averages 63.2 mil viewers

ABC News, CNN still topping network, cable numbers

Tuesday night's town-hall-style joust between John McCain and Barack Obama resonated with viewers who made it the most-watched presidential debate since 1992.

The 90-minute showdown averaged 63.2 million viewers across all the networks, Nielsen Media Research said late Wednesday. That's 21% higher than the first debate two weeks ago (52.4 million). But it couldn't hold a ratings candle to the Sarah Palin/Joe Biden vp debate last week, which averaged 70 million viewers.

This debate was nothing but a win for ABC News and CNN as ABC News won its third straight debate in the ratings, while CNN was the top network among the cable news channels. ABC News averaged 13.1 million viewers, compared with NBC's 10.9 million, CBS' 9.4 million and Fox Broadcasting's 5.3 million.

CNN had 9.2 million viewers, compared with Fox News' 8.8 million, MSNBC's 3.8 million and CNBC's 842,000.

ABC News president David Westin said late Wednesday that it was gratifying and a testament to the work of the on-air and behind-the-scenes staff.

It might also have something to do with ABC News' commitment to election coverage, which stretches back to summer 2007, when "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" held debates for the Republican and Democratic primary candidates. It continued with the back-to-back debates at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., in January and a full night of coverage on Super Tuesday.

"We've made a consistent commitment to the story," Westin said.

CNN U.S. president Jonathan Klein said Wednesday that staking itself as "the best political team on television" has paid ratings dividends.

"We are presenting information in a postpartisan way that offers a range of views, truly one-stop shopping where you get everything from Bill Bennett to Donna Brazile and everything in between," Klein said. "It's brimming with energy and insight, it's unpredictable, and we offer a lot of data so you can watch how the audience of uncommitted voters is reacting and you can watch scorecards of our analysts. It adds up to a very engaging way to settle in and watch the debate."

But CNN isn't getting cocky.

"We take these one at a time. We don't take for granted that we are going to win each debate," Klein said. "You have to reconvince the audience every time out that you are the best place to watch the debate."

Fox News Channel, which was 400,000 viewers away from CNN this time, won in the ratings for the vp debate.

CNN also won in the adults 18-34 demographic, which it has done in every one of the debates.

Meanwhile, Westin said Wednesday that ABC News would deploy the same team of "World News" anchor Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer and Stephanopoulos not only for the fourth debate but also on Election Night. ABC News is going to make it an event, not only being on the air from 8 p.m. EST until a decision has been made but also from the ABC News studios overlooking Times Square in New York.

It will not only be an event on the air but also for the New Yorkers and tourists outside the studios, where the Jumbotron will be announcing numbers and winners all night.

Paul J. Gough reported from Nashville; James Hibberd reported from Los Angeles.