Chaotic presidential debate watched by 73 million viewers, far short of expectations

President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate in Ohio.
President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland on Tuesday night.
(Getty Images)

The TV audience for the widely panned first presidential debate between President Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, on Tuesday fell short of expectations.

Nielsen data show the 90-minute showdown at Case Western University in Cleveland was watched by an average of 73.1 million viewers.

The official tally fell well below the all-time high of 84 million who tuned in on Sept. 26, 2016, to watch Trump’s first meeting against Hillary Clinton. However, the 2020 number will increase when Nielsen adds out-of-home viewing data.


Many pundits predicted a record-setting number. Instead, the chaotic slugfest — described by political analysts and Biden himself as a national embarrassment — may have been a turnoff.

A larger number of viewers were streaming the debate online than four years ago, which likely cut into the TV audience as well.

Trump frequently interrupted and badgered Biden. He also hectored debate moderator Chris Wallace, an anchor on the president’s favored cable channel Fox News, who battled at times to keep the proceedings under control.

Wallace offered Trump an ample opportunity to denounce white supremacists. Trump’s failure to do so and his apparent call for the Proud Boys, a far-right group to “stand by,” became the major post-debate story.

Biden responded in testy exchanges by calling the president a “clown” and telling him to “shut up.” On Twitter, Trump criticized Wallace, accusing him of aiding Biden in the debate.

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Fox News had the most viewers of any network, with 17.8 million. ABC was second with 12.6 million viewers, followed by NBC (9.7 million), CNN (8.3 million), MSNBC (7.2 million), CBS (6.4 million), the Fox broadcast network (5.4 million), Telemundo (1.5 million) and Fox Business Network (758,000), CNN Español (95,000).


The debate also aired on WGN America, PBS, Univision, Newsy, Newsmax and Vice.

Fox News clearly benefited from having Wallace as moderator, as it set a cable news record for its debate audience. It was the second most watched telecast in the network’s 25 year history, topped only by its exclusive coverage of the 2015 Republican primary debate, which was watched by 24 million viewers

Trump and Biden are scheduled to debate two more times, on Oct. 15 in Miami and Oct. 22 in Nashville. Vice President Mike Pence will debate Biden’s running mate Sen. Kamala Harris of California, on Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City.

The Commission on Presidential Debates said Wednesday that it will consider format changes in the future meetings.

“Last night’s debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” the commission said in a statement. “The CPD will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”