Presidential Debate Opener Drops Sharply From 2016’s Record High In Early Numbers; ABC Tops Nets In First Trump-Biden Showdown

Deadline – by Dominic Patten

There was a Hell of a lot of brimstone and fire from Donald Trump last night in the first 2020 presidential debate, with Joe Biden and America both feeling scorched this morning.

Almost from the start, Fox News’ Chris Wallace went from playing moderator to nursery school teacher trying to rein in the former Celebrity Apprentice host, who seemed more intent adapting a Tasmanian devil strategy than talking policy – aka classic Trump. 

Still, the near-universal criticism of the incumbent and the easy win delivered to the former VP may not burn Trump much as the ratings, which we all know he is obsessed with. Back in 2016, then-candidate Trump’s first debate with Hillary Clinton shattered expectations and records. If the early numbers are any indication, that will not be the case this time.

Certain to change in the final numbers and as more outlets are added, the first round of ratings on the first of the three debates set between Trump and Biden were down double digits from four years ago. In fast-affiliate results, last night’s 9-10:30 PM ET slugfest was watched live by an audience of 27.3 million on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Among adults 18-49, the often cringe-inducing event snared a combined 7.1 rating.

Total to total, that’s a drop of 36% from what Trump vs. Clinton drew on September 26, 2016 among the four networks.

Besides the coronavirus pandemic and economic meltdown, another change from four years ago is that NBC no longer leads the pack. ABC actually topped the Big 4 on Tuesday in the initial metrics with 10.3 million viewers and a 2.6 rating. Back in 2016, it was NBC in first place with 15.6 million viewers, compared with second place ABC’s 11.6 million.

Last night saw Comcast-owned NBC snare an audience of 7.5 million in the fast affiliates and a 2.1 rating. With 5.05 million watching, CBS was third like in 2016 (though down considerably like everyone else) and Fox was fourth with 4.4 million. The ViacomCBS-owned network had a 1.1 rating and the Murdoch-owned Fox had a 1.3.

Having said that, this will all shift upwards as Nielsen numbers are adjusted in the final results. Also, the likes of Univision, CNN, MSNBC and Fox and others who carried last night’s debate will see their numbers added to the totals. However, getting within striking distance of the 84 million who watched the first Trump vs. Clinton debate from 2016 is looking like a faint hope.

Having said that we will update with more numbers as we get them. And remember, the first VP debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris is October 7. Biden and Trump are scheduled to meet up agn aiOctober 15 in Miami for their second debate, though who really has an appetite for that after last night?

Believe it or not, there was more on TV last night than the fracas of a debate. In the 8 PM hour, NBC had the season debut of Weakest Link hosted by Jane Lynch. The return of the popular game show delivered a 1.3 in the demo and 6.07 million viewers.

Romance continued to blossom on CBS’ Love Island (0.6, 2.84M), which was up two tenths from last week, while Fox’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds (0.5, 2.03M) ticked up from its double-dose Season 2 premiere last week. Not airing the debate, the CW served two helpings of Whose Line Is It Anyway repeats and ended the night with the finale of Tell Me a Story (0.1, 318,000) ,which held steady with last week.


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