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56.5 Million Watch Final Presidential Debate

Total viewership was down for the third presidential debate on Oct. 15 compared to the second debate on Oct.7, according to Nielsen. 

The ratings company said late Thursday that 56,523,000 people (40,037,000 households) tuned in live across 10 TV networks plus tape delayed on Telemundo (though there could also be some DVR viewing not yet tallied).

That was down from the 63,233,000 and 44, 372,000 households that tuned in Oct. 7 to see Barack Obama and John McCain square off. 

But that was up from the 51,2000,000 people and 36,300,000 households that tuned in to the third debate in 2004 between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Although Fox did not carry Wednesday night's game because it was airing the Dodgers' loss to the Phillies, turns out the comparison is apples to apples: Fox didn't air the debate in 2004 either, also because it was carrying a baseball playoff game.

Nielsen overnight numbers from its 56 local metered markets recorded a 38.3 household rating. Among the lowest viewership was in Philadelphia and L.A., the hometowns of the the Phillies and Dodgers.

That is down from the 42.1 rating the Oct. 7 debate averaged, but up from the first debate (34.1), though the first debate had the disadvantage of being on the more lightly viewed Friday schedule.

In Philadelphia, the Oct. 7 debate drew 43.7% of the households, while Wednesday night's debate only claimed 32%, with baseball edging it out at 32.3%. 

In Los Angeles, the baseball fans may have tuned out early as the team got behind. Only 10.2% of viewers watched the game vs., 29.2 % who watched the debate, though that still put L.A. among the bottom three markets in terms of debate viewership. But that 29.2% was still down from the 33.7% who watched the Oct. 7 debate.

Baltimore had the highest percentage of debate viewers with 49.3% while California markets claimed the bottom two, with Sacramento last at 28.1% and L.A. second to last. Philadelphia was fourth from the bottom.

The final presidential debate was the most watched of the three square-offs between the tops of the tickets for PBS, however. But it still didn't match the VP debates numbers.

PBS said 3.2 million viewers tuned in Wednesday night (a 21 rating/3 share in households). That was up from the 2.8 million (1.8/3) that tuned in to last Tuesday's debate (Oct. 7), which itself was up from the 2.6 million (1.7/2) that tuned in for the first debate Sept. 26.

But The Sarah Palin/Joe Biden debate Oct. 2 debate remains the winner with 3.5 million PBS viewers (2.3/3).

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.