Biden’s audience on ABC tops NBC’s Trump event in the duel of town halls

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos sit on stage, masked, for a town hall.
Joe Biden and George Stephanopoulos on stage in Philadelphia.
(Associated Press)

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden edged out President Trump in the duel of the network town halls on Thursday.

Nielsen data showed that Biden’s event on ABC, running from 8 to 10 p.m Eastern, averaged 14.1 million viewers. Trump, whose event aired from 8 to 9 p.m. Eastern, attracted an average of 13.5 million viewers across the NBC broadcast network and cable channels MSNBC and CNBC. In the hour where the two candidates were head-to-head, Biden led Trump as well with 14.3 million viewers.

The numbers are not likely to please Trump, who often touts his ability to draw large TV audiences.


The head-to-head scheduling of the events led to harsh criticism of NBC, which offered Trump the same time period as Biden’s event (set last week) — thereby forcing viewers to choose which candidate to watch live. NBC’s rationale for the move was that a later hour would have given Trump access to a larger available TV audience, as viewership increases over the course of the evening; the network’s Oct. 5 town hall with Biden also aired at 8 p.m. Eastern.

NBC News executives asked ABC to change the time period of its event, but they were turned down, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

NBC News noted that an additional 1 million viewers watched Trump’s town hall through video-on-demand platforms. Another 3.1 million viewers watched some part of it on the NBC News Now live stream.

The town hall skirmish developed when the Commission on Presidential Debates canceled its Oct. 15 event after Trump refused to debate Biden from a remote location. The commission’s demand was made as a health precaution after the White House announced on Oct. 1 that Trump had tested positive for COVID-19.

The dispute resulted in two events, with Trump in Miami to take questions from voters and “Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie. Biden met with voters in Philadelphia where the proceedings were led by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos.

How the two 1960 presidential candidates — one in New York, the other in Los Angeles — held an hourlong forum from separate studios.

Oct. 13, 2020

Both town hall events were given positive reviews by pundits and critics.

Guthrie, a former litigator, was widely praised for her persistent follow-ups on Trump’s answers regarding his handling of the coronavirus and on why he has re-tweeted extreme and discredited conspiracy theories spread by the right-wing group QAnon. Guthrie thrived despite being put in the hot seat by the networks’ scheduling conflict. Pundits, former NBC News figures and actors who work for the network’s entertainment division lashed out on news programs and social media over the way the division’s executives handled the event.

"Today" co-anchor Savannah Guthrie moderates NBC's town hall with President Trump in Miami on Thursday.
“Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie moderates NBC’s town hall with President Trump at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami on Thursday.
(NBC/Christopher Dilts/NBC News)

When Trump said he knew little about QAnon and recirculated their views on Twitter so that people could decide for themselves, Guthrie shot back: “You’re the president. You’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.”

She also pressed Trump on when he had been tested for COVID-19 ahead of the Sept. 29 debate in Cleveland; the president said he did not remember.

Stephanopoulos subjected Biden to rigorous questioning on whether he will expand the number of Supreme Court justices in response to the Republican-controlled Senate’s push to get Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett confirmed just days before the election. Biden said he would let voters know his stand after the Senate votes.