At nearly 84 million viewers, debate may be the most-watched ever

New York Times News Service

It was the biggest political clash in American history — by one measure, at least.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump shake hands at the start of their presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Sept. 26, 2016. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was watched by 84 million television viewers, Nielsen said Tuesday, the largest audience since televised debates began in 1960.

In an era when mass events are increasingly rare, Monday’s meeting of the candidates was seen in nearly half of American households with television sets. The viewership toppled the previous debate record of 80.6 million, set during the sole 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in the days before social media and cable TV.

The tally did not include Americans who watched Monday’s debate on the internet or on mobile devices. It also did not include viewers of C-SPAN, which is not rated by Nielsen.

The TV audience edged out cultural hallmarks like the 1998 finale of “Seinfeld,” which attracted about 76 million viewers, even if it fell short of Super Bowl numbers and the nearly 106 million who tuned in for the finale of “M.A.S.H.”

It also represented a 25 percent jump over the first encounter in 2012 between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, which drew 67.2 million viewers.

Statistics from Nielsen showed that viewership held steady for the 95-minute duration of Monday’s event, a break from years when viewers gradually lost interest.

For the television news industry, the debate was yet another milestone in a banner year for ratings and revenue, fueled by interest in an unusual presidential election. Big audiences for news coverage have been a bright spot for network executives facing an exodus of younger viewers to online video purveyors and streaming services. Social media sites also reported heavy activity on Monday night.

Fox News brought in the most debate viewers on cable, with an average of 11.4 million, according to Nielsen. NBC News ranked first among the broadcast networks, with an average of 18.2 million viewers.

Clinton and Trump are set to meet for two more debates, including a town hall event on Oct. 9 moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC and Anderson Cooper of CNN.