What TV ratings on the presidential debate do and don’t mean

<i>This post has been updated. Please see note at bottom for details.</i>

Television ratings for Wednesday’s first presidential debate jumped up strongly from four years ago, seemingly contradicting commentators who said low ratings for August’s Republican National Convention showed that public interest in presidential politics had receded.

A total of 67.2 million people watched the debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, according to figures released late Thursday by the Nielsen Co. -- a 28% increase over the 52.4 million who tuned in to the first debate in 2008.

The total includes the major broadcast and cable networks as well as outlets such as Univision and PBS.


The high 2012 viewership showed: (a) soaring interest in the presidential race, or (b) a lack of alternative programming, or (c) no clear political trend. It would be safest to assume “c,” since only a month ago the Associated Press read a lot into a number -- viewership for the GOP convention in Tampa-- that may not have meant so much.

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That’s an amorphous enough statement it could mean just about anything, but the tone suggested there had been a marked falloff in interest in 2012. Whether that’s true or not, the GOP convention ratings on TV don’t prove it. And the new debate ratings don’t disprove it. Those are just two among myriad data points.

Anyway, the numbers show that the three broadcast networks had about 10 million viewers each in the first hour of the debate, which began at 6 p.m. PDT, according to numbers compiled by the blog zap2it. The networks were followed by Fox News, with 6.9 million viewers during the first hour of the debate.

Interest in the 2012 race seemed much more muted, based on the ratings for Romney’s nomination acceptance speech in Tampa, which got 30.3 million views over 11 outlets, according to Nielsen.

That marked a sharp falloff from 2008, when Sen. John McCain’s acceptance speech at the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., drew 39 million viewers.

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Politics aside, many critics said the Democrats put on a better “show” at their 2012 convention, and the viewership numbers may have reflected that. With its bevvy of Hollywood celebrities and political celebrities -- notably former President Bill Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama -- the Democratic Party in Charlotte, N.C. strongly outdrew the Republican gathering.

More than 35.7 million people tuned in to the Democratic convention on broadcast and cable networks on the night in early September that Obama accepted the Democrats’ nomination for president, according to Nielsen.

That marked a falloff from 2008, when 38.4 million watched the then-senator from Illinois accept the nomination in Denver. But the four-year decline for the Democrats was not as severe as the one that confronted the Republicans.

What those numbers mean — in terms of winning or losing a November election — is anyone’s guess.

[Updated, 5 p.m., Oct. 4: An earlier version of this post said 58 million people watched Wednesday night’s presidential debate. The new total of 67.2 million released late Thursday includes viewers who watched on outlets other than the major cable and broadcast networks.]

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