Last night’s debate is being hailed (or trashed) in the media as one of the biggest and most outrageous of such events in modern political history, but a look at the early numbers coming in show that not nearly as many people witnessed it firsthand as we expected. It will still take a while to crunch all the numbers but Reuters is reporting that the total viewership could have dropped by more than 16 million when compared to the September 26th event.

The Hollywood Reporter, CNN and Variety said on Monday that very early overnight ratings from Nielsen showed the TV audience was about 19 percent to 20 percent down from the Sept. 26 debate, which attracted a record 84 million viewers.

Final figures for all network and cable channels that carried the debate will be released by Nielsen later on Monday.

Variety has the specific early figures which will be tightened up by this evening.

In Nielsen’s overnight metered markets, Sunday’s 9-10:40 p.m. ET debate averaged a 37.2 household rating and 53 share. That’s down 19% from the 46.2/63 overnight rating for their first debate. That contest wound up setting a record for presidential debate viewership with 84 million viewers.

Nielsen’s 56 overnight metered markets reach about 70% of TV households in the U.S.

This will lead to a lot of head scratching among the chattering class. As recently as yesterday afternoon the experts were already predicting that this one could shatter all records and possibly produce Super Bowl level numbers. Obviously we didn’t come anywhere near that, but even a 20% drop would still amount to more than 67 million viewers. That’s a lot of people… roughly half the number who are expected to vote in the election. I suppose we shouldn’t complain too much in that regard, and it’s a significant trouncing of the premier of Dancing With the Stars this season which only drew a comparatively paltry 12.2 million viewers. Perhaps there’s hope for society after all.

But why would people who aren’t political junkies be less inclined to check out this critical moment in deciding the next president? I wonder if the media isn’t shooting itself in the foot by assigning such dismal descriptions to the event, along with pretty much everything else to do with Donald Trump. The Hill quickly moved to characterize the debate as, “both nasty and personal, especially in its early stages, potentially turning off more voters from both candidates than it won over for either.”

Over at NBC News, Chuck Todd and his associates described the spectacle as, “a new low in this 2016 presidential campaign.

As Buzzfeed writes, Trump went “Full Breitbart” last night. And it all produced a new low in this 2016 presidential campaign.

And it sets up a looming disaster for the GOP

Trump going “Full Breitbart” has definitely fired up his base (last night was what Trump operatives Steve Bannon and David Bossie had always dreamed about). And that creates a looming disaster for Republicans who need to win over non-Breitbart voters: How do you distance yourself from Trump — especially after those 2005 lewd comments — but avoid the wrath coming your way from the base?

Here’s something that I don’t think Chuck Todd and the rest of the gang are really grasping… Trump isn’t in this to help the GOP. And in large numbers, prominent figures in the party haven’t seemed particularly interested in helping him. Also, he’s turned out to be the sort of street fighter who isn’t going to play by the rules and will start swinging for the fences (or his opponent’s jaw, figuratively speaking) as soon as he deems it appropriate. But if you choose to characterize that sort of approach as low or nasty or any other combination of adjectives designed to make Trump seem unappealing, might you not be reducing the appeal of the encounter for the prospective audience?

And let’s not kid ourselves here. Those reviews I just linked were already baked into the cake before the event took place. This debate was sold in advance as a Not Safe for Work encounter. CNN ran an article on the morning of the big show asking, Will you let your kids watch the next presidential debate? If that’s the expectation you are building you probably shouldn’t cry into your beer too much if your ratings go down. One might think that parents who have been warned that the show may be too disgusting for their kids might not care to tune in themselves. And what purpose did the warnings serve? As a political analyst you might be put off by Trump calling Clinton “a liar” or saying he’d like to see her locked up, but nobody was dropping F-bombs on the stage. There was no nudity or physical violence.

No, in the end it was a perfectly safe show for all age groups unless you’re a special snowflake at college who must be protected from dissenting opinions. But if the media sold the debate as a show that was going to be a horrible spectacle, let’s not wring our hands over the advertising dollars you may have lost when potential viewers took you at your word.