Pre-Debate Hype Storm Far Outpaced Show's Viewership

Last Thursday night’s presidential debate was a train wreck, but everybody has already commented on that.

And they still are. But what amazes me is that this debate did not soar into the viewership stratosphere to seize the top spot in the history of televised presidential debates.

The audience across 17 broadcast and cable channels was estimated at 51.3 million. 

Before the debate, I would have bet my bottom dollar that this particular debate would break records.

Although a measurement of the pre-debate hysteria was not possible (to my knowledge), it seemed to me, and possibly many others, that no presidential debate in history was as hyped and anticipated as this one.



So why wasn’t it the highest-rated in history? Perhaps the answer is simple: Hype does not necessarily translate into viewership.

How soon we forget. I cannot recall the hype cycle that must have attended the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it may have been louder than this one. Or maybe not. 

That debate emerged as the most-watched presidential debate ever, with an estimated audience of 84 million. The record still stands.

Two other Trump debates also far out-scored last week’s clash with President Biden. One of the 2020 Trump-Biden debates had an estimated audience of 73.1 million -- the third best in history.

A Trump-Hillary debate in 2016 was fourth best with 71.6 million viewers. (Number 2 on the list was a 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and President Carter -- 80.6 million.)

So why wasn’t last week’s Trump-Biden faceoff in that group? A couple of reasons occur to me.

One reason may have been the June date of the debate. I read somewhere it was the earliest televised presidential debate in recent history. 

Maybe the debate-viewing public was not as interested in a debate held so long before Election Day.

Another reason, based on some anecdotal evidence: It could be that many people who formerly may have been eager to watch a contentious presidential debate (as evidenced by the audience data for previous debates cited above) have thrown up their hands this time around in frustration and/or disgust.

With that mindset, the last thing they felt like doing was waste an evening rubbernecking at a train wreck. This group may have stayed away simply to avoid aggravation.

Having said all that, and despite the fact that viewership for this debate was 39% less than the 2016 Trump-Hillary record, 51.3 million viewers is nothing to sneeze at.

But did last week’s debate, or any of the others mentioned above, actually succeed in changing hearts and minds? 

Or more to the point, after last Thursday’s spectacle, did undecideds suddenly decide how to cast their votes? 

This seems doubtful. For one thing, neither candidate came off well, even if the lion’s share of the post-debate coverage was all about Biden and the impression he gave of a senior citizen who maybe should give serious thought to retirement.

However, as unsettling as Biden’s demeanor was for many, those who have already decided to vote for him do not seem like the kind of people who will suddenly go the other way and vote for Trump. 

They detest Trump so much that is hard to picture them pulling a lever or filling in an oval for him, no matter how grave their doubts about President Biden’s cognitive abilities.

So, if this debate does not persuade voters to switch sides and in the process tip the scales for either candidate, what purpose do these presidential debates serve in the first place?

The view from here is that they are here merely to amuse and entertain the masses, who have given up on expecting anything better.

3 comments about "Pre-Debate Hype Storm Far Outpaced Show's Viewership".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Dan Ciccone from STACKED Entertainment, July 3, 2024 at 10:49 a.m.

    Did anyone at MP track online/streaming viewership vs. solely looking at linear?  Broadcast news viewership is down 20% over the last 5 years, so I don't know why linear viewing is the only benchmark presented to understand (or misunderstand) actual consumption of the debate.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, July 3, 2024 at 11:28 a.m.

    Dan, I don't think that such data has been released---all I've seen is CNN's claim that its digital "network" garnered 30 million "live starts"---but that is not an average minute number. As for the demos, two-thirds of the viewers were adults aged 55+, less than 9% were aged 18-34.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, July 3, 2024 at 12:03 p.m.

    What would be interesting when comparing this debate's  ratings to those of past debates would be a hoding power tabulation. In other words how much of the debate was consumed by those who tuned in for at least 5 or 6 minutes--it's "total audience"? And how did this compare to similar meter based findings for earlier debates. I wouldn't be surprised if the Biden /Trump fiasco lagged well behind the older dabates in holding power---or dwell time. Many viewers, sickened by what they saw, may have quickly opted out.

Next story loading loading..