How many extra viewers was Trump responsible for, I wonder. The first Romney/Obama debate four years ago drew 67 million people, a nice haul in an age of splintering media options. That was the largest audience for an initial presidential debate since Reagan/Carter in 1980, the record-holder with 80.6 million people — in an era with three television networks and no cable TV. (Also an era with a much smaller population too, though.) Even if you’re generous and assume modest organic audience growth between 2012 and this year, a debate with a generic Republican nominee probably tops out at … what? 72 million or thereabouts?
In fairness to Clinton, Trump wasn’t the only household name on the marquee. Between the two of them, you’re talking about people who have been nationally famous for a combined 55 years or so. Go figure that the ratings would blow the roof off. I heard the number “100 million” kicked around before the debate as the hype was peaking, which seems out of reach based on today’s data, but the overall figures will be millions beyond what Reagan and Carter did once online viewers are factored in:
The ratings put the debate in rare company. Of TV programs that drew an average of more than 80 million viewers, most were NFL Super Bowl broadcasts, with the others were the finales of M.A.S.H. and Cheers. Of course, the debate aired on a dozen TV networks and streamed online, whereas the Super Bowl and M.A.S.H. only aired on one channel each.
The numbers do not include anyone watching on PBS, Univision or non-rated TV channels like C-SPAN, nor does it include anyone that streamed the debate online. Data from Facebook, YouTube and other digital sources suggests that millions more people watched the debate live online.
The grand total as I write this in is 80.9 million, narrowly ahead of 1980 even with multiple networks yet to report their numbers. All of that is a testament to Trump’s (and Clinton’s) celebrity. The bad news for Trump is that the audience didn’t just show up, they stayed put. They watched the first half hour when he performed well, then kept on watching for another hour as his performance became, shall we say, low energy:
Record-setting (but not Super Bowl-sized) TV audience for 1st presidential debate (81M). Viewers showed stamina: No big drop-off in 98 min.
— Alexis Simendinger (@ASimendinger) September 27, 2016
The audience for the second and third debates inevitably declines each cycle as some of the novelty wears off. Is that inevitable this year, though? Trump was hinting last night after the debate that he nearly brought up Monica Lewinsky in response to Hillary’s sexism attacks but held off because Chelsea Clinton was in the room. Rudy Giuliani thought that was a mistake. If Clinton’s little passion play with Miss Universe pays off, Trump might come to see it as a mistake too and start touting the idea that debate two will be bareknuckle, no-more-mister-nice-guy stuff. One thing the man knows how to do is promote his ventures. Debate two might end up with an historic audience as well.
Here’s Trump wondering last night whether his microphone was defective “on purpose” and Clinton goofing on him for it.