According to preliminary numbers from Nielsen, 8.5 million people watched the debate on Saturday night — just more than half of the number that watched the first Democratic debate and just over a third of the number that watched the first Republican one. It was substantially less than the number of people who went out of their way to find a network called Fox Business on their cable systems last week — and it was on CBS. Broadcast.
But it's worth adding some context. It's easy to forget how completely bananas the viewership of this year's debates has been. The most-watched prime-time cable programs in the past two decades include this year's college football championship — won by the dominant, excellent Ohio State Buckeyes. It was seen by 33.4 million people. The Fox debate beat the highest-rated non-sports cable program since 1993, which was last year's "Walking Dead" finale. That was seen by 17.3 million.
In other words, the scale is skewed.
If we roll in the 2012 primary debates, Saturday night's Democratic one beats all of the Republican debates that cycle through January 2012. It beats the last time CBS aired a debate on Saturday night, in 2011. And it beats the top-rated debate from that cycle, which aired on ABC — also on a Saturday night, but an hour earlier.
It's all relative, as the saying goes. Very, very few people tuned in to a Democratic debate buried late at night on the weekend. But it's still more people than watched the Republicans debate in 2011, even before you include the audience that streamed it online.
Another reminder that this weird election cycle is upending what we know about election cycles.