It's Not Debatable: McCain-Obama Ratings Fall Far Short of Predicted Record

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

In spite of navel-gazers' forecast that last Friday's presidential debate might become the most watched telecast in TV history, cracking 100 million viewers, the face-off between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama wound up drawing only about 52.4 million people.

While that's an audience the producers of "Do Not Disturb" would kill for, it's about 10 million viewers shy of the crowd that collected for the first presidential debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry on Sept. 30, 2004. That debate clocked 62.5 million viewers. In both 2004 and 2000, the first of the three presidential debates was the most watched.

The audience for the McCain-Obama verbal skirmish, moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer, certainly didn't come near that amassed by the Mother of All Presidential Debates, the Oct. 28, 1980, smackdown between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which bagged nearly 81 million viewers.

Of course, it didn't help that the first presidential debate of this election cycle took place on a Friday, one of the lowest TV-viewing nights of the week. This week's debate between the two vice-presidential candidates might do a bigger number for various reasons, not least of which is that it's scheduled for a Thursday -- one of the biggest TV nights of the week.

Also not helping drive viewers to last Friday's debate was the uncertainty as late as that morning that McCain would show up. The GOP nominee had announced earlier in the week he was suspending his presidential campaign and would not show up at the debate unless a deal to shore up Wall Street had been reached in Washington. (In the end, the debate happened, though the deal did not.)

Nielsen Media Research said its number for the McCain-Obama debate audience includes live coverage by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, TeleFutura, Telemundo, BBC America, CNBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. The sum of the debate audiences on these 11 networks was, Nielsen said, 52,418,000.

PBS is not included in the Nielsen mash-up. The public television network said it believes another 2.6 million people watched the debate on its stations, an extrapolation based on 42 Nielsen overnight markets with PBS stations airing live debate coverage across all time zones. Nielsen said it cannot vouch for PBS's numbers. PBS also said in its news release that the debate drew "immense interest from Americans nationwide watching on television at home, at viewing parties and public spaces and on other platforms." Nielsen said it does not know where PBS got that information, given that Nielsen does not track viewing in public spaces and on other platforms in its debate stats.

We were not able to get in touch late yesterday with the three PBS reps whose names were on the news release to ask where the information came from.

ABC, meanwhile, said it logged the biggest debate audience of any individual network -- 11 million viewers.

Fox News Channel was next with an average audience of 8.2 million viewers; CBS drew 7.6 million; and NBC and CNN each clocked about 7.1 million.

Fox broadcast networks, which ran coverage anchored by Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith, logged 3.9 million viewers, which, ironically, is about as many people as chose to watch the debate on MSNBC.

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