The presidential primary debate season got off to a strong start on Wednesday as 15.3 million viewers watched the first round of contenders for the Democratic nomination face off on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo.
The audience total across the three networks is just below the 15.5 million who watched the 2016 Democratic candidates debate on CNN on Oct. 13, 2015.
But the 15.3-million figure tallied by Nielsen for the premiere 2020 event, held in Miami, is higher than any of the primary debates held before the 2016 campaign cycle.
Interest in 2016 was boosted by Donald Trump’s candidacy. The first two Republican debates in 2015 drew 24 million on Fox News — the largest non-sports cable telecast in history — and 23 million on CNN.
Wednesday’s debate was simulcast across the three NBCUniversal networks from 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern time. NBC News said another 9 million users streamed some part of the debate over its internet services.
The audience figures bode well for NBC’s coverage of the second round of candidates appearing on stage Thursday, which includes the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, and other higher-polling candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The event on Wednesday was a de facto undercard, as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the only candidate on stage with poll numbers in double digits.
With 20 qualifying candidates in the debates, the Democratic National Committee split them into two groups of 10 through a lottery. The result put Biden on the same night as several of his top competitors, while Warren was among a group of candidates all polling with 5% or less.
NBC News did suffer a few technical snafus, as the video feed briefly went to black several times over the course of the telecast. Moderator Chuck Todd had to go to a commercial break at the start of the second half of the debate while a microphone issue was resolved.
But advertisers who reportedly were being asked to pay in the low six figures for a 30-second spot on the debate will be happy with the audience level, which far exceeds what most prime-time programs attract during the summer months.
Broadcast network NBC averaged 8.67 million viewers for the debate. Cable news channel MSNBC had 5.87 million viewers. Spanish language network Telemundo drew 719,000 viewers.
CNN will air the next two-night Democratic debate to be held on July 30 and 31 in Detroit.