MSNBC could probably use a hug right now.
The first one-on-one debate between 2016 Democratic presidential nominee contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders scored 4.48 million viewers Thursday on the cable news channel, making it the least-watched showdown of the campaign season that includes the major candidates.
The audience figure from Nielsen for the event that ran from 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern time, ranks 17th among all of the 19 debates held in the current cycle. Only two of the Republican "undercard" debates, featuring the candidates ranked near the bottom of the polls, were lower.
The previous low for a Democratic debate in the 2016 cycle was ABC's telecast from New Hampshire on Dec. 19, which was watched by 8.03 million viewers.
The debate held in Durham, N.H., five days before voters go to the polls in the state's primary, was finalized earlier this week, giving little time for MSNBC to promote it on its air.
MSNBC's competitors cited the low numbers as further evidence that the NBC News-operated cable channel is less competitive on the cable news stage. MSNBC was a distant third in its coverage of the Iowa caucus on Monday, behind Fox News and CNN.
An NBC News executive not authorized to speak publicly on the matter said staging debates is not just about scoring ratings. "We gave New Hampshire voters the post-Iowa debate they asked for, gave the national audience the first chance to see the two candidates face off one-on-one and gave the candidates a forum to engage each other directly on the issues they've been debating through the press and individual events for days," the executive said.
It may also be that viewers are tiring of the debates in general. The Republican events, which have set viewing records for cable news, have been in a ratings decline as well with or without front-runner Donald Trump.
ABC News airs the next Republican primary debate from Manchester, N.H., on Saturday. "ABC World News Tonight" anchor David Muir and "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" co-anchor Martha Raddatz will be the moderators.
Thursday's Democratic debate, moderated by NBC News political director Chuck Todd and MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, was highly praised on social media and in press coverage for being lively and substantive. But Maddow, whose progressive political views are the foundation of her nightly program, took a few shots for hugging each of the candidates on stage after the debate concluded.
"I don't think I've ever seen a moderator do that before," said Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume in a tweet after the event.
"Imagine the reaction on the left if the Fox News moderators at a debate were Bret Baier and Sean Hannity, an unabashed conservative," wrote Fox News media analyst Howard Kurtz. "The criticism of Fox for fielding such a team would have been intense."
NBC News had no comment on the hugs.