On Thursday night, Fox News Channel hosted a Republican presidential primary debate with 10 of the 17 Republican candidates. At 24 million viewers, it became the most viewed non-ESPN program in cable history. Hell, even I tuned in for part of it (after watching the more interesting Canadian leadership debate) — the first time I’ve ever intentionally watched Fox News. Possibly even the first time I’ve watched Fox News and wasn’t also stuck in a train/bus terminal or airport.
The debate beat out last year’s record-breaker for a non-sports event, an episode of The Walking Dead, by a margin of 6.6 million viewers. The previous record-holder for a cable news event was Larry King’s 1993 moderation of a CNN debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot on NAFTA’s proposed ratification in Congress. Even that audience was 7 million smaller.
This debate had more than 20 million more viewers than the first Republican debate in 2011. Analysts credited — who else but the reality TV star? — Donald Trump’s anticipated presence for generating widespread awareness of exactly when the debate would be, so that more people didn’t miss it. Sadly, the clown car that is the 2016 Republican presidential field has officially become one of America’s top reality TV programs, it seems. A reality show like The Bachelorette only pulls in 8 million viewers at the most these days.
However, in general, Broadcast TV often still generates much larger audience numbers than cable on a fairly regular basis, although there too sports events continue to be the mega-draw. Still, the Thursday night debate exceeded the average viewership of the past decade’s most popular non-sports network show, NCIS, for both the most recent season and any other season, including its peak in 2012 at 21.34 million viewers.
Another interesting comparison point is against series finales on network TV. So for whatever it’s worth, in absolute numbers, this debate’s audience was between the finale viewership counts for St. Elsewhere (22.5m in 1988) and Full House (24.3m in 1995) — 19th and 18th respectively on the list of all-time highs for network TV series finales. However, it has been more than a decade since any network TV series finale exceeded the viewership of Thursday night’s debate. For example, the debate audience was nearly twice the audience of the much-anticipated 2014 finale of How I Met Your Mother.
Remarkably, the “JV debate” earlier in the day was still one of Fox News Channel’s highest-rated primary debates in history, although 18 million fewer people tuned in and there was barely even a live audience.