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Democratic debate a ratings hit as CNN scores a record 15.3 million viewers

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the start of the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the start of the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

(Mike Nelson / EPA)

You don’t need Donald Trump to make a primary debate a ratings hit.

CNN’s first Democratic presidential primary debate on Tuesday averaged 15.3 million viewers according to Nielsen, well above expectations and the sixth-highest rated non-sports event ever on cable.

The ratings are nowhere near the numbers for the first two Republican primary debates, which had the added attraction of Trump after his candidacy had exploded into a media phenomenon. Fox News had 24 million for its Aug. 6 debate and CNN was close behind on Sept. 16 with 22.9 million.

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But no one expected blockbuster numbers for the Democrats’ event, the first time front-runner Hillary Clinton appeared on stage with her rivals for the presidential nomination Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee.

CNN did not reveal its ratings projections for the debate. But competitors say advertisers that bought commercial time on the event were promised an audience of around 10 million viewers.

In the publicity run-up to the debate, there were photos of an empty lectern ready for Vice President Joe Biden in the event he decided to jump into the contest at the last minute -- an indication that CNN feared a lack of audience interest. Biden said he was still deciding whether to run but announced early on that he would not participate in the debate.

The news channel had noted that the Democratic primary debate that occurred at a comparable point in the 2008 election cycle attracted only 2.5 million viewers on MSNBC.

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The audience for Tuesday’s face-off in Las Vegas was by far the largest for any Democratic debate, topping the previous record of 10.7 million viewers who watched ABC’s telecast of the meeting between then-candidate Barack Obama and Clinton in Philadelphia on April 16, 2008.

CNN also had a large online audience for the debate. Streaming of the event peaked at 10:20 p.m. Eastern time (7:20 p.m. Pacific) with 980,000 users.

Among TV viewers, the debate peaked at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time, with 16.9 million people tuned in. It proceeded to drop in every quarter hour after that, finishing with an average of 13 million viewers from 10:45 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time. Even with the drop-off, the debate was the second- most-watched program on the night, only trailing the CBS drama “NCIS,” which averaged 16 million viewers at 8 p.m.

Privately, CNN executives say they are especially gratified by the level of viewer interest in a Trump-free political event because the network has invested heavily in coverage of the 2016 race for the White House. It was likely a strong financial night for CNN as movie studios, which don’t frequently buy time on older-skewing cable news programming, had a big presence on the debate telecast. Eager to reach audiences who watch live, studios typically pay the highest ad rates.

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Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

This story was updated with additional information at 3 p.m.

The story was originally published at 10:36 a.m.

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