The first presidential debate of 2016 drew slightly more than 84 million television viewers, a record audience for a political event.
Viewing of Monday’s showdown between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump exceeded the 80.6 million who watched the 1980 debate between President Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan, according to an estimate from the Nielsen rating service.
Monday night’s figure of 84.01 million doesn’t include several million more people who watched live streams of the event on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites.
The 90-minute Trump-Clinton debate at Hofstra University was carried on 13 TV networks, including six cable news networks.
Twitter and Facebook said it was the most-discussed debate in their brief histories.
The debate was a blockbuster in the Washington, D.C., region, attracting 73 percent of all household viewing between 9 p.m. and 10:45, a figure that even Super Bowls rarely approach. NBC-owned WRC (Channel 4) had the largest audience in the region by far, some 596,000 viewers.
Expectations for a huge audience for the first debate, moderated by “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, were primed by the relatively high interest in the primary season clashes featuring the Republican and Democratic hopefuls, as well as by curiosity about Trump, a political newcomer, and Clinton, the first woman nominated by a major party.
Some pundits had projected that the TV audience for the debate Monday would be as high as 100 million people, placing it in typical Super Bowl territory.
But a growing portion of viewers now watch live events via streaming video, limiting the potential TV audience and throwing off comparisons to previous years.
As it was, the television audience for the debate was more than twice that of the Academy Awards telecast on ABC in February (34.4 million).
The second three-way debate among President George H.W. Bush, Gov. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot drew 69.9 million in 1992, making it the third most-watched presidential debate in history. The 2008 vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden drew the same number of people.
The first debate of the 2012 campaign between President Obama and Mitt Romney reached 67.2 million, the highest of the three debates held that year. Debate audiences tend to be at their peak for the candidates’ first meeting, and fall after that.