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Monday night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was preordained to be one of the biggest TV events of 2016, and initial ratings have it on track to be a record setter.
With ratings for 13 networks boasting live coverage of the debate now in, the event has surpassed 84 million viewers. That doesn’t even yet include the likely record-breaking showing among streamers. Regardless, it would put it ahead of the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. That set the bar at 80 million viewers.
Adjusted broadcast numbers have the 90-minute showdown easily topping all recent debate coverage. With Nielsen’s Fast National ratings, the Big Four broadcast networks’ coverage pulled a total 49.1 million viewers ahead of time zone adjustments. That’s almost 25 percent increase from the same numbers in 2012. Among the individual networks, NBC currently leads with 18.2 million of those viewers, followed by ABC (13.5 million), CBS (12.1 million) and Fox (5.5 million). PBS drew 3 million viewers. Univision (2.5 million) and Telemundo (1.8 million) add another 4.3 million viewers.
On the big three cable networks alone, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC, the debate added another 26.2 million viewers. All marked increases from 2012. FNC led the trio with 11.4 million viewers, while CNN closely following with 9.9 million and MSNBC rounded out at 4.9 million. (Fox Business Network added 673,000 viewers, while CNBC pulled 520,00.)
The first presidential debate of 2012, between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, grossed 67.2 million viewers across a multitude of networks.
Overnight ratings among Nielsen’s metered markets have the Big Four networks pulling a total 31.2 rating among households. (The 2016 Super Bowl, which is the only real comparison for the year, pulled an early 49 rating for CBS and ultimately brought in more than 100 million viewers.) As overnight ratings go, that’s also more than double last week’s Sunday Night Football score. It nabbed a 13.7 rating, which ultimately translated to 22.8 million viewers. Ahead of tallies from the main trio of cable news networks and the multitude of broadcasters carrying the commercial-free stream, this puts the debate on track to smash that 2012 total and very likely approach an all-time high.
Prognosticators, politicos and pundits spent much of the last week guessing how many would watch the Clinton-Trump debate. But the event stood to break a record even if it fell short of the Super Bowl size numbers that had been floated around. Digital audiences will likely account for a significant sum of viewers once all is said and done. A plethora of outlets streamed the event for free — PBS, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook among them.
In non-debate ratings, the increased focus on Monday night was good news for entertainment programming at 8 p.m. Though steady episodes of The Voice and The Big Bang Theory topped the hour with a respective 3.3 and 3.5 rating among adults 18-49, both steady with last week’s premieres, it was Dancing With the Stars that got a boost. The ABC show was improved 20 percent to a 1.8 rating among adults 18-49. Both Gotham (1.2 adults) on Fox and Kevin Can Wait (2.7 adults) on CBS were also steady with last week.
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