First presidential debate draws a record 84 million viewers

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The first face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the most watched presidential debate in history

An estimated 84 million viewers tuned in to watch the first presidential debate live last night, making the face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the most-watched presidential debate in television history. The record was previously held by Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan, which received a total of 80.6 million viewers on October 28, 1989.  

The final numbers are still being tallied by Nielsen, but the 84 million estimate is based on viewership numbers received by 13 networks between 9-10:39 p.m. ET last night. It does not include the 3 million viewers who tuned in on PBS, or who watched the debate on live streaming services. While the final tally will increase, the debate will still fall short of the 100+ million viewers some analysts were predicting.

At 43.76 million viewers, the Big 3 networks, NBC, ABC and CBS, had the largest chunk of viewership. NBC was first at 18.16 million, followed by ABC at 13.52 and CBS at 12.08. The Big 3 cable news networks, Fox News Channel (11.36 million), CNN (9.80 million) and MSNBC (4.89) – totaled 26.05 million viewers. Results do not include the analysis in the remainder of the 9:30 p.m. half-hour.

Forty-six years ago, on Sept. 26, 1960, the first of the four "Great Debates" between Republican candidate for President Richard Nixon and Democrat John F. Kennedy aired. Reports vary in terms of viewership, with as high as a documented 74-million viewers at the time (on only three networks). More recently, Nielsen reported 67.2 million viewers based on the 12 outlets airing the first Presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 (on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 to be exact).

Since the first debates are traditionally the highest rated of the series of three, chances are this first Clinton-Trump will remain the record holder.

The second debate, hosted by Anderson Cooper, is being held at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 9 p.m. ET.

--This story has been updated to reflect the most recent data available from Nielsen. 


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