The three presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will go down as the most-watched series of debates in television history.
An audience of 71.46 million people watched Wednesday’s third and final face-off between the Republican and Democratic party nominees, based on figures from 11 channels that aired the debate.
Wednesday’s crowd was about 7.5 percent larger than the second debate’s audience of 66.5 million — which didn’t air on NBC due to the network’s NFL obligations — and still well short of the record-setting 84.4 million for the first contest.
Together, the three debates averaged about 74.1 million viewers, the biggest audience ever in an election year where more than one debate took place. Prior to this year, only one previous debate (the lone contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980) drew more than 70 million people.
The Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 remain the all-time champion in terms of households, the best measure of the percentage of homes that tuned in. Those four debates averaged a 59.3 household rating — even the Super Bowl doesn’t hit that mark these days — but total viewers (which weren’t recorded then) would have been lower since both the population of the United States and the number of homes with TVs was considerably smaller then.
Fox News drew the biggest debate audience Wednesday with 11.26 million viewers. ABC (10.96 million), NBC (10.39 million) and CBS (10.12 million) were tightly bunched from second to fourth. CNN drew 8.68 million viewers, followed by FOX broadcast, 6.6 million; MSNBC, 5.51 million; PBS, 2.7 million; Univision, 2.4 million; Telemundo, 1.58 million; Fox Business, 741,000; and CNBC, 547,000.
Here is the audience for the debates in each of the past six presidential election years.
|Year||First debate||Second debate||Third debate||VP debate|
|1996||46.1 million||36.3 million||**||26.6 million|
|2000||46.6 million||37.5 million||37.7 million||28.5 million|
|2004||62.4 million||46.7 million||51.1 million||43.5 million|
|2008||52.4 million||63.2 million||56.5 million||69.9 million|
|2012||67.2 million||65.6 million||59.2 million||51.4 million|
|2016||84.4 million||66.5 million||71.5 million||35.6 million|
**Only two debates were held in 1996.
Source: The Nielsen Company.