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September 27, 2008

McCain-Obama debate pulls average early rating

83029223The first debate between John McCain and Barack Obama is on track to pull a surprisingly average viewership number, drawing fewer households in the preliminary ratings than George W. Bush's face off against John Kerry four years ago.

In the meter-market overnights, Friday night's 90-minute debate in Mississippi received a preliminary household rating of 34.7, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That's 12% lower than the national number from the 2004 debate, which aired on a Thursday -- generally TV's most-watched night of the week. Friday's number is only slightly above George W. Bush and Al Gore's first debate in 2000 and the Clinton-Dole debate in 1996.

The McCain-Obama rating represents 55 of the 56 largest TV viewing markets in the country and includes ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Telemundo, TeleFutura, and BBCA.

A much firmer sense of the debate's popularity will be available Monday when Nielsen releases the national numbers -- including total viewers -- so the debate's overall rank could shift. One media report is extrapolating that the rating equals 57 million viewers, but Nielsen will not confirm this. The St. Louis market had the largest debate audience, with a household rating of 52.1, while the Phoenix/Prescott market had the lowest rating, 24.8 (top markets here).

The first 1980 bout between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter still holds the record as the most-viewed televised presidential debate, with a 58.9 household rating and 80.6 million viewers.

Ratings expectations ran very high for Friday's event, given that Obama's and McCain's convention speeches set Nielsen viewership records, and all the will-he-or-won't-he suspense over whether McCain would participate. If last night's numbers are maintained in the nationals, most will probably blame the debate being scheduled on Friday night for the relatively average tune-in.

Media observers generally say the debate was a draw: "Few hits, no errors" says the LA Times. "Obama showed leadership, McCain proved experience," says Bloomberg. "It was clear throughout that they didn't like each other, but the new debate format kept them from ever really getting into it," says THR. "Neither candidate won," says Slate. "The big winner was America," says Forbes. Though polls by CNN and CBS gave the edge to Obama. Video highlights.

On Friday night, ABC's coverage tentatively averaged a 7.1 household rating/11 share while NBC averaged a 6.2/10, CBS a 5.0/8 and Fox 3.1/5. Also: PBS said their telecast of the debate earned a 1.7 HH rating, which isn't normally included in the Nielsen report, but if added brings the overall total to 34.9.

[Updated to include Nielsen's slightly revised HH rating -- 9/28] 

National household ratings for earlier presidential debates (each year's first debate only):

2004: Kerry-Bush: 39.4

2000: Bush-Gore: 31.7

1996: Clinton-Dole: 31.6

1992: Clinton-Bush-Perot: 38.3

1988: Bush-Dukakis: 36.8

1984: Reagan-Mondale: 45.3

1980: Carter-Reagan: 58.9

1976: Ford-Carter: 53.5


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