Media News

McCain-Obama debate draws 52.4 million viewers

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The nationally televised sparring session last week between John McCain and Barack Obama drew 52.4 million U.S. viewers, Nielsen Media Research reported on Monday, a substantial but mediocre figure as U.S. presidential debates go.

The tally for Friday’s 90-minute debate between the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees fell well shy of the first debate four years ago between President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, which drew 62.5 million viewers, Nielsen said.

The two subsequent Bush-Kerry face-offs in October 2004 averaged 46.7 million and 51.2 million viewers, respectively.

But all those numbers pale in comparison with the 80.6 million viewers who saw the Oct. 28, 1980, showdown between President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. That matchup, the only one between Carter and Reagan, ranks as the most watched televised 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 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 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, which a number of polls said gave a modest boost to the Democratic nominee, scored a household rating of 31.6.

Ratings expectations for the event at the University of Mississippi had run high in light of intense public interest in what the candidates had to say about the financial crisis and the record audiences they drew to their national conventions.

But Robert Thompson, a media scholar at Syracuse University, said he was surprised that the overall level of excitement that has surrounded the 2008 presidential race failed to generate greater viewer enthusiasm for the first debate.

“It wasn’t a bad number,” he said. “But it certainly wasn’t the kind of blockbuster number you could expect -- this being one the major episodes of what’s been the most exciting miniseries of this past year.”

Some suggested the debate may have suffered from airing on a 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.

McCain and Obama still have two more debates to go -- a town hall-style event on Oct. 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a debate on domestic and economic policy slated for Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in New York.

Editing by Peter Cooney