Still, that audience number, which was based on 16 networks that carried it, was down significantly from the record 84 million people who watched the first debate of the 2016 general election campaign live across 13 television networks. But it was up from the 67 million people that watched the first debate of the 2012 general election campaign between incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.
The tally, which was revised up from an earlier count of 64.7 million total viewers that was based on the eight major broadcast and cable news networks, excludes debate viewers who watched via online streaming or on a television networks’ streaming portals such as CNN Go or Fox News Go. Still, it represents the best guesstimate of how much audience interest there was in the 90-minute event.
With an average 17.8 million total viewers, Fox News was the far-and-away winner of the informal contest between networks for audience share, likely driven by enthusiasm for the president, whose supporters gravitate to the cable-news network. That figure was way ahead of second-place ABC, a broadcast news network, with about 12.6 million total viewers, and NBC, which averaged 9.7 million total viewers.
Among the other cable news networks, CNN averaged 8.3 million total viewers, while MSNBC averaged 7.2 million total viewers.
Tuesday night’s debate, which was widely considered to be one of the most unpleasant to watch in television history, may have turned off some viewers as President Trump continually interrupted former vice president Joe Biden and even the experienced moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.
Wallace pleaded repeatedly with the debaters to give him back control of the event, to no avail, and the Commission on Presidential Debates announced on Wednesday that the format will, mercifully, change for the remaining presidential debates — which many expect will involve granting the next moderators, Steve Scully of C-SPAN and Kristen Welker of NBC News, the power to cut the microphones of misbehaving participants.
“Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” the debate commission said in a statement. “The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”
Overall, an average of 74 million people tuned in to watch the three debates between candidate Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. That was up from the 64 million people who tuned in for the Obama-Romney debates in 2012.
Wallace, who faced criticism from Fox News commentators in addition to the broader public, expressed disappointment about Tuesday night’s festivities in an interview with the New York Times. (Fox News host Mark Levin said on his radio show Wednesday that the debate was “moderated awfully.”)
“I’m just sad with the way last night turned out,” he said. “I never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did.”
But the debate commission did not seem to put any blame on the moderator. “The Commission is grateful to Chris Wallace for the professionalism and skill he brought to last night’s debate and intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates,” the group said.
Wallace’s performance drew praise from his bosses, Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott and President Jay Wallace, in a Wednesday afternoon memo obtained by The Washington Post. “We are extremely proud of his professionalism, skill and fortitude in a unique situation while doing everything possible to hold both candidates accountable,” they wrote. “No moderator could have managed a debate of that magnitude better than Chris.”