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The Debate With Something for Everyone

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, October 2, 2004; Page C07

About 63 million people watched Thursday night's presidential debate from the University of Miami on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, Nielsen Media Research reported yesterday afternoon.

That compares with about 47 million viewers for the first debate in 2000, when NBC and Fox delayed part of the debate because they were airing baseball playoffs and had to prioritize.

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Notice that Nielsen did not include PBS in its report yesterday; that's because if a tree falls in a forest but there are no commercial interruptions, it did not happen. On the other hand, none of the other networks ran commercials during the Bush-Kerry session either, so there goes that argument. Maybe Nielsen has just forgotten about PBS, as have so many others.

According to a source at one network who, like his counterparts, was busily spinning numbers and trying to find out what the competition did, word on the street is that PBS averaged about 3 million viewers.

So who was the big winner of the presidential debate? No question: Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," which copped its largest audience ever -- 2.4 million viewers -- with its live post-debate "analysis." It beat MSNBC's post-debate analysis, which averaged 1.9 million viewers, although it enjoyed the advantage of running 30 minutes earlier than Comedy Central's.

The latter network's "The Bush-Kerry Debate: The Squabble in Coral Gables" ran live on the East Coast from 11 to 11:30 p.m., smashing the former record "Daily Show" audience of 1.9 million, garnered on Jan. 21 with Sen. John McCain as guest.

In its time period, "The Squabble" beat CNN's "Larry King Live" and MSNBC's "Hardball."

But there was something for practically every network to crow about on Debate Night.

Fox News Channel pulled in an impressive 9.6 million viewers for the debate, which is its second biggest audience ever, behind only that four-minute-long coverage of President Bush's we're-at-war speech of March 19, 2003. That had 9.7 million viewers.

But FNC's 9.6 million is a fraction of the 17.2 million who watched the face-off on NBC -- the most watched network of the debate.

About 13.5 million preferred CBS. Another 11.5 million chose ABC on which to watch Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry and President Bush go mano a mano in front of what we were told was a roomful of people, though they were nowhere to be seen because the room was pitch-black and those audience members had been instructed -- lectured, actually -- by moderator Jim Lehrer not to make a peep during the 90-minute experience because God forbid there should be a moment of unrehearsed spontaneity in the First Presidential Debate of Campaign 2004.

Fox broadcast network averaged 5.2 million viewers for the debate, CNN drew 4.3 million, and MSNBC had 1.2 million.

During the post-debate blah blah, CBS's Dan Rather-anchored program plunged to 9.4 million, causing reporters to buzz yesterday about possible fallout over that bungled "60 Minutes" report on Bush's National Guard service. ABC's post-show mop-up averaged 10 million viewers, and NBC's 13.3 million. Fox broadcast network had no post-debate navel-gazing. FNC's aftermath averaged about 8 million viewers, CNN's 4 million and don't forget MSNBC's 1.9 million.

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