Presidential Debate Ratings: 56.5 Million Viewers, NBC, Fox News Win The Night

11/16/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Danny Shea Editorial Director, The Huffington Post

The final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, moderated by Bob Schieffer, drew 56.5 million viewers, more than their first debate moderated by Jim Lehrer (52.4 million) but less than their second debate, the town hall moderated by Tom Brokaw (63.2 million). All three presidential debates came in behind the meeting of the vice presidential candidates, which drew approximately 70 million viewers.

The Hollywood Reporter's James Hibberd reports the numbers, and suggests that Game 5 of the National League playoffs may have prevented the debate from topping the town hall:

The testy clash in Long Island between Barack Obama and John McCain was seen by 56.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That's 8% higher than the first debate held on a Friday (52.4 million) and 11% lower than the second bout, held on a Tuesday (63.2 million). And, of course, it's much lower than the vp debate, which stands as the second most-watched of all time (70 million).

Viewership was likely affected by Fox airing a series-deciding Game 5 of the NLCS baseball championships, Los Angeles vs. Philadelphia last night. L.A. and Philly are the second and fourth largest television markets, respectively.

Network News
NBC won the night overall, averaging 11.3 million viewers and breaking ABC's winning streak. ABC, which had won all three previous debates, averaged 10.6 million viewers, while CBS averaged 9.2 million viewers.

Cable News
Fox News reclaimed the top spot, averaging 9.1 million viewers for its highest presidential debate yet (its coverage of the vice presidential debate averaged 11.1 million viewers). CNN, which won the town hall debate ratings, came in a close second with an average of 8.9 million viewers, while MSNBC continued to lag far behind with an average of 3.7 million viewers, the lowest rated of the four debates on MSNBC thus far.

Public Television
PBS, which is not included in Nielsen ratings, averaged an estimated 3.2 million viewers, just 500,000 fewer than MSNBC. If PBS viewers were included in the national total, the total audience can be estimated around 59.7 million viewers.