The ratings for Fox News Channel's Republican presidential primary debate took an expected hit from Donald Trump's decision not to participate in the event, staged Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa.
The debate, which fell four days before the state's nominating caucuses, averaged 12.5 million viewers from 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern time. It was the second-smallest audience of the seven GOP primary debates and about half of what Fox News scored with its first Republican debate in August.
Even with the decline, the debate attracted the second-largest audience in Fox News' history and was the most watched program in prime time, according to Nielsen. Trump had predicted the event would be a "total disaster" without him, but the audience exceeded the 11 million who watched his last debate appearance.
Trump, the front-runner for the 2016 Republican nomination, took a pass on the night after feuding with Fox over anchor Megyn Kelly. Trump accused Kelly of being unfair during the network's first debate when she questioned him about derogatory comments he has made about women.
In the days leading up to the debate, Trump's campaign lobbied Fox to remove Kelly as a moderator. Fox held firm, and Trump decided to skip the event after the network issued a statement that tweaked the candidate over his concern about facing her again.
Trump held his own event — billed as a fundraiser for wounded military veterans — at nearby Drake University and received sporadic live coverage on rival cable news networks CNN and MSNBC. From 9:15 to 10:15 p.m. Eastern time, the two networks had a combined audience of 3.1 million viewers.
In the hours before the debate, Fox News tried to make peace with Trump in the hope that he would change his mind and show up. But the network said the candidate asked for a $5-million contribution to a veterans charity in return for his appearance, an unacceptable request for any news organization.
Fox News anticipated a huge audience for Thursday night after its broadcast of the first GOP showdown on Aug. 6 attracted 24 million viewers. The record-setting audience for a nonsports cable telecast revealed that Trump was a powerful attraction for the debates, which in past election cycles typically scored well under 10 million viewers.
Fox News had reportedly sold some of the 30-second spots for its telecast for more than $250,000, which has become the going rate for the GOP gatherings.
But Fox News executives fully expected the absence of Trump to hurt ratings and were willing to absorb the hit in order to support Kelly and not be seen as capitulating to the demands of a candidate. The network expects to meet the ratings guaranteed to advertisers once DVR playback is added in.
Without Trump, Fox News' audience did not approach the level of the first debate or either of the two shown last year on CNN (23 million viewers on Sept. 16 and 18 million on Dec. 15). It was higher than the last debate, shown Jan. 14 on Fox Business Network, but that channel is available in fewer homes than Fox News Channel or CNN.
Overall, the audience levels for the GOP debates have been on a downward trend since the first two. CNBC had 14 million viewers on Oct. 28. Fox Business scored 13.5 million viewers with its first debate on Nov. 10 and 11 million on Jan. 14.
Trump will have to decide again whether he wants to face Kelly, as she will be a moderator at the next Republican primary debate on Fox News — along with Bret Baier and Chris Wallace — scheduled for some time in March.