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About 73.1 million people tuned in to first debate — and most stayed the entire time

Tuesday night's first debate appeared to be riveting for viewers, most of whom stuck it out to the end.
Image: Americans Across The Nation Watch First Presidential Debate
The first presidential debate on screens at Walter's Sports Bar in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images

About 73.1 million people watched President Donald Trump debate former Vice President Joe Biden on television Tuesday night, down from the record 84 million who watched Trump's first debate with Hillary Clinton four years ago, according to the media measurement company Nielsen.

The viewership was measured across 16 networks that carried the debate live. Neither the 2016 nor the 2020 figures account for viewership on digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

People stuck around for most of the debate, with little fluctuation in viewership from start to finish.

The viewership estimate makes Tuesday's debate the third most watched presidential debate based on Nielsen data, behind the 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which drew 80.6 million viewers.

The size of the audience is notable considering that ratings for the recent political conventions had declined compared to previous years and that many consumers have ditched traditional cable TV packages for streaming options — which are not part of Nielsen's measurements.

The debate aired on all major broadcast networks and cable news channels, with the splits between the two illustrating a dynamic that points to an increasingly polarized public. Viewership was down for ABC, CBS and NBC, while Fox News and MSNBC drew far larger audiences compared to four years ago.

Fox News Channel attracted the biggest audience, with 17.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen, up from 11.4 million viewers four years ago. MSNBC drew 7.2 million, up from 4.9 million. CNN drew 8.3 million viewers, down slightly from 9.9 million.

ABC led the cable networks, with 12.6 million viewers, followed by NBC, with 9.7 million, CBS, with 6.4 million, and FOX, with 5.4 million.

NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC, MSNBC and NBC News.

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Trump lauded the ratings in a tweet, although he claimed that the debate got the second-highest "overall" ratings of any debate, which is inaccurate, according to Nielsen's data.

"Some day these Fake Media Companies are going to miss me, very badly!!!" Trump added.