The first presidential debate of 2020 was widely panned by most observers — and drew a smaller TV audience than the record-setting first debate four years ago.
The 16 outlets that carried live coverage of the debate brought in 73.13 million viewers — the second-largest audience of any debate in the past 24 years, per Nielsen figures, but still well behind the 84 million who watched the first general election face-off of 2016. Streaming figures are not included; previous widely viewed live events such as presidential debates and Super Bowls have under 10 percent of their average viewership from streaming.
On the seven biggest outlets carrying the debate — broadcast networks ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and cable channels CNN, Fox News and NBC — the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden drew a combined 67.4 million viewers. That’s down by 8 million viewers (about 11 percent) for those same channels’ coverage of the first 2016 debate.
Spanish-language broadcasters Telemundo and Univision added 2.68 million viewers to the tally, and Fox Business brought in 758,000 more people. PBS, CNNe, Newsmax, Newsy, Vice and WGN America drew the remaining 2.3 million or so viewers.
The first 2016 debate drew its 84.4 million viewers across 13 networks and had the biggest audience in the 60-year history of televised debates. In 2012, 67.2 million watched the opening debate.
On Tuesday, Fox News drew the biggest audience of any individual network: 17.81 million viewers, well above its performance from any of the 2016 debates. ABC finished second with 12.62 million, followed by NBC, 9.67 million; CNN, 8.29 million; MSNBC, 7.19 million; CBS, 6.38 million; and the Fox broadcast network, 5.44 million.
The broadcast nets’ share of the audience fell considerably from 2016: The 34.1 million viewers on the big four is down from 49.33 million for the first 2016 debate, a drop of 31 percent. The three main cable news outlets, on the other hand, grew their audience by 28 percent to 33.29 million; Fox News (+57 percent) and MSNBC (+47 percent) each posted big gains over the comparable 2016 debate — and each set records for a general election debate telecast — while CNN declined by 15.5 percent.
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Sept. 30, 1:40 p.m. Updated with cable ratings for the presidential debate.
Sept. 30, 3:23 p.m. Updated with final Nielsen figures.