LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The nationally televised debate last week between U.S. presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama drew 52.4 million U.S. viewers, far below 1980's record audience, Nielsen Media Research reported on Monday.
The tally for Friday's 90-minute debate between the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees nearly matched the 52.7 million viewers who tuned in last Wednesday to see President George W. Bush's prime-time address urging swift congressional action on the financial crisis.
But the McCain-Obama matchup fell well shy of the first debate four years ago between Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, which drew 62.5 million viewers, Nielsen said. The two subsequent Bush-Kerry face-offs averaged 46.7 million and 51.2 million viewers, respectively.
Those numbers all pale in comparison with the 80.6 million viewers who saw the October 28, 1980, showdown between then-President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.
That debate, the only one between Carter and Reagan, still ranks as the most watched televised U.S. presidential debate since 1976, the year Nielsen began counting individual viewers.
Before that, the audience was tallied according to household ratings -- a measure of the percentage of U.S. homes with TV sets that tune into a broadcast.
By that measure, the historic first three matchups in 1960 between Democrat John Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon rank as the top three U.S. presidential debates, garnering household ratings of 61.0, 59.5 and 59.1, respectively.
The Carter-Reagan debate ranks fourth, with a 58.9 rating, followed by the fourth and last Nixon-Kennedy bout at 57.8.
The McCain-Obama debate scored a household rating of 31.6.
Ratings expectations for Friday's event at the University of Mississippi had run high in light of intense public interest in what the candidates would say about the financial crisis and the record audiences they drew at their national conventions.
Some suggested the debate may have suffered from airing on Friday night, generally the second least-watched evening of the week after Saturdays.
If that was the case, the Democratic and Republican nominees for vice president, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, may look forward to a bigger audience for their debate on Thursday -- traditionally the heaviest night of TV viewing -- than their running mates attracted.
McCain and Obama still have two more debates to go -- a town hall-style event on October 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a debate on domestic and economic policy slated for October 15 at Hofstra University in New York.
Editing by Peter Cooney