Hofstra University went from hosting no debate at all to being the site of the most-watched presidential showdown in history.
Monday evening’s bout between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead was watched by 84 million viewers across 13 networks, including three Spanish-television stations. Hofstra, initially selected as an alternate, was awarded the debate in July after Wright State University dropped out due to budgetary concerns. It has now hosted a record-setting three consecutive presidential debates.
Media watchers had expected record-breaking ratings for the first contest between two nominees who provoke wide-ranging emotions from a deeply polarized electorate. Despite the strong performance, the 84-million viewership fell significantly short of last February’s Super Bowl—the most viewed television event ever, with 118.5 million viewers.
Still, the Clinton-Trump melee did something no debate has done in 36 years: supplant the Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter matchup in 1980, which drew 80.6 million eyeballs.
Also for comparison, the first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 was watched by 67 million Americans.
Nielsen, which measures television viewership, released its findings late Tuesday.
The debate aired live on all the major networks, as well as PBS, CNN, Fox News, Fox Business Network, CNBC, and MSNBC, plus Univision, Telemundo and TV Azteca. The event was also believed to be watched by many people internationally concerned with the outcome of the American presidential election.
CNN Money reported that NBC attracted the largest haul of viewers, with 18 million people tuning in. NBC’s big night, as CNN Money noted, could partly be attributed to “NBC News” anchor Lester Holt moderating the debate. ABC ranked second (13.5 million) and CBS third (12.1 million), while Fox News won the cable-TV showdown with 11.4 million viewers. CNN and MSNBC claimed 9.9 and 4.9 million viewers, respectively.
TV remains America’s primary outlet for tuning in to high-profile events, but nascent live stream technology also came into play during this debate.
A variety of social media sites also streamed the event live on Monday evening, meaning many millions more watched the event but were not included in the final TV viewership tally.
Important first impression
How Americans feel the two candidates fared in the initial showdown could be crucial considering 37 states, plus Washington, D.C., offer early voting. In 2012, it was estimated that about a third of the country voted prior to Election Day, either through a mail-in ballot or at a physical polling site.
The consensus among many in the media was that Clinton prevailed over Trump, though surrogates for the GOP nominee maintained Monday evening after the debate that Trump won out. Afterward, Trump complained Holt was harder on him than Clinton and speculated that his microphone was “defective.” Trump had complimented Holt immediately after the debate but before pundits graded the competitors, saying: “I thought Lester did a great job.”
Corporations also bet big on the debate attracting a wide audience. According to The Washington Post, networks sold ad spots of more than $200,000 for just 30 seconds of airtime. Since debates do not feature commercial interruptions, advertisers were wagering that viewers would check in before the 9 p.m. hour in which the debate began and for post-debate analysis—a spectacle in it of itself.
The two remaining presidential debates are scheduled for Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis and Oct. 19 at University of Nevada in Las Vegas. The single vice presidential debate is Oct. 4 at Longwood University in Virginia.
Below is a sampling of some ads that aired on debate night at Hofstra: