VPs post presidential numbers

ABC and Fox News top ratings as debate draws record 70 million viewers

In the end, Thursday's main event was everything it was billed to be, not the least of which was the most-watched vice presidential debate.

All the stars seemed in alignment, with the debate scheduled during an always-popular night of television, a Depression-caliber fiscal crisis looming over what was already a high level of interest in politics, a cast of two participants who have a reputation of gaffes and circuitous answers and the wide expectation that somehow, somewhere, there was a televised train wreck coming.

That train wreck didn't happen, but it didn't stop the ratings from reaching within 10 million or so of the all-time most-watched debate, 1980's single meeting of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that was seen by 80.6 million viewers. It was, simply, must-see TV for tens of millions.

More than 70 million viewers watched the 98 minutes of sparring between Sarah Palin and her Democratic rival, Joe Biden, Nielsen Media Research said Friday. There were 69.9 million viewers across the multitude of networks carrying it, and then 3.5 million more people watching on PBS, the TV home of the moderator, Gwen Ifill.

"(Palin has) becoming a very interesting figure to the American public. They don't know a lot about her, and they haven't gotten to see her a lot except in lots of snippets, like the Katie Couric interview," CNN political analyst Gloria Borger said Sunday. "The more of a mystery she is, the more the American people want to see her unfiltered. It was really the viewers' opportunity to size up Sarah Palin on her own."

It also stood in contrast to the Sept. 26 debate between the presidential candidates, for which 52.4 million people tuned in. Thursday night's vp debate was up 33% compared to the John McCain-Barack Obama debate the previous Friday. It was an increase of 61% over 2004's vice presidential debate (43.6 million) and 23% higher than the 1984 George H.W. Bush-Geraldine Ferraro debate (56.7 million).

ABC and Fox News were the big winners among the networks, though there were strong performances by almost every major network. ABC had the largest audience with 13.1 million viewers, while Fox News led all cablers with 11.1 million. The debate was also Fox News' most-watched telecast in the channel's 12-year history; it was CNN's third-most-watched telecast in its almost three decades in operation.

"Americans wanted to watch this," said Jay Wallace, vp news editorial product at Fox News. "The numbers are high across the board."

For ABC News political director David Chalian, the high ratings weren't a shock because of the high level of interest — and ratings — that the networks have seen throughout the primary season, the political conventions and now the debates.

"It's irresistible for the American public," Chalian said. "It has compelling drama and comes at a really important time when the nation finds itself at a crossroads."

But let's not mince words. Much of the tune-in was to see Sarah Palin, who had been battered by several unimpressive interviews (including this weeks with CBS' Katie Couric) as well as an amazingly high-profile month and a half since she was selected as John McCain's running mate.

ABC News' Chalian said that "she did herself a world of good" in the debate setting and improved, at the very least, her personal brand.

"She brought the Sarah Palin of the convention that got so much attention, not the Sarah Palin of the recent television interviews where she's been a little bit shaky," Chalian said.

Borger said that beyond the partisans who watched the debate, it'll be interesting to see what the opinion surveys find about how Palin did among independent and undecided voters.

"It's very hard to know how people reacted, but I don't think that it was a game-changing debate," Borger said. "I think people who were predisposed to like Sarah Palin still like her, and the people who weren't probably thought she didn't do a great job. But I don't think it was a changing moment in the presidential race."

Borger and Chalian thought that with the vp candidates leaving the stage, it will go back to the main competition — McCain vs. Obama — and that the election will be won or lost on those candidates, not on Biden or Palin.

"Saturday Night Live" lived up to the expectations that it would weigh in on the debate, which took up the first 11 minutes of Saturday's show. Former cast member and current "30 Rock" star Tina Fey was back as Palin, Jason Sudeikis played Biden and Queen Latifah made a special appearance as moderator Ifill. It was later in the night when "SNL," after lampooning the debate, weighed in with its own opinion during "Weekend Update" that made just as much sense as any in the four days since the debate: If you liked her already, you still liked her, and if you didn't like her before, you don't like her still.

Paul J. Gough reported from St. Louis and New York; Hibberd reported from Los Angeles.
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