Early Ratings: Final Presidential Debate Falls From First

ABC drew the largest audience for second Trump-Biden showdown, Fox aired “Thursday Night Football”

Just like the first Trump vs. Biden debate, ABC topped the second (and final) one in total viewers, according to the earliest-available broadcast ratings. Thursday’s Trump-Biden 2 was viewed less on the over-the-air channels than the first — even if you back out Fox, which aired football last night.

Thus far, from 9 p.m. ET to 11 p.m. ET, the final presidential debate of the 2020 cycle averaged 21.4 million total viewers across three broadcast networks, according to Nielsen. That is down 6% from the first debate when comparing CBS, NBC and ABC to themselves.

Throw Fox back into the mix for Trump-Biden 1 and overall broadcast tune-in for the second debate was down 21%.

Due to the nature of live television, these preliminary numbers should be considered subject to significant upward adjustment. In a sense, they only serve first snapshot, good for comparison with the same rough data set. Ratings for cable will be available later today, as will final, time-zone adjusted data for all of TV.

Find the early, comparable Nielsen numbers for the first Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden presidential debate here.

According to the first numbers for that Sept. 29, 2020 event, the Big 4 broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC) combined for 27.2 million viewers from 9 p.m. ET to 11 p.m. ET. That sum was down significantly from 2016.

Fox, which aired the Giants-Eagles “Thursday Night Football” game last night instead of Trump-Biden 2, accounted for 4.4 million viewers the first time in this comparison of fast-national Nielsen numbers.

Much like Thursday’s event, the proper debate portion of Trump-Biden 1 ran a few minutes beyond its planned 9-10:30 p.m. ET window. Analysis of the face-off filled the remainder of the two-hour time slot — same as last night.

Eventually, Trump-Biden 1 scored a whopping 73.1 million total viewers across 16 channels. That’s not a record audience, but it’s up there.

Thursday marked the second debate between Trump and Biden, but it was supposed to be the third. After contracting COVID-19, Trump refused to participate in a second, virtual debate. Instead, the two candidates held dueling town hall events.

Biden won that ratings battle.

Of course, the real winner of the 2020 election cycle will (hopefully) be determined on Nov. 3.

In 2016, the third — and final — presidential debate took place on a Wednesday. ABC drew the most broadcast viewers back then, with CBS just barely edging out NBC for second place in total viewers.

Four years ago, like CBS, NBC and ABC (and like it did a few weeks ago for Trump-Biden 1) Fox’s broadcast network aired the final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

(Football taking precedent is not unprecedented. The second presidential debate of 2016 took place on a Sunday night, which means NBC passed on Trump-Clinton 2 in favor of airing “Sunday Night Football.”)

In 2016, the final Trump-Clinton debate initially posted 32.6 million total viewers across CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. Minus Fox, the early tally would’ve been 26.7 million viewers.

When all was said and done, that final Trump-Clinton debate posted 71.6 million viewers across 13 platforms. Nielsen didn’t measure out-of-home viewing or viewing on connected TVs then, but it does now. Of course, not a ton of people are doing anything out-of-home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Check back with TheWrap later today for cable numbers and final Nielsen ratings.

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