51.3 Million Tune In to Biden-Trump Debate, But Young Viewers Sparse

Roughly 51.3 million people tuned into the first general election debate between former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden Thursday night, according to final ratings from Nielsen, marking a significant decline in television viewership compared to the first general election debates of the last two presidential races.

Why it matters: Biden’s train wreck performance coupled with Trump’s highly-anticipated return to the debate stage drew a sizable audience in an era when the value of political debates had been in question, but very few young people watched. report from Forbes.

Of the 51.3 million that tuned in on live TV, only 3.9 million were between the ages of 18 and 34.

By the numbers: A total of 47.9 million people watched the debate on live television Thursday across several networks, according to early figures. Among the coveted advertising demographic of 25-54-year-olds, 12.6 million tuned in. CNN said there were more than 30 million live starts of the debate on CNN’s digital platforms and on YouTube. Millions of others likely watched clips or parts of the debate on social media. Full viewership data will represent marginally higher figures when it comes in within the next day or so.

The intrigue: At first it appeared as though Fox News’ simulcast of the event drew the highest number of viewers, but CNN pulled ahead in the final viewer count. Below are the final viewership figures by network:

  • CNN: 9.53 million
  • Fox News: 9.27 million
  • ABC: 9.21 million
  • NBC: 5.39 million
  • CBS: 5.01 million
  • MSNBC: 4.12 million
  • FOX: 3.67 million

Zoom out: In choosing to allow other networks to simulcast its live feed, CNN ushered in more exposure for its debate, but the numbers were still paltry compared to modern general election debates. The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016 drew 84 million viewers on live TV. The first debate between Trump and Biden in the 2020 general election drew 73 million viewers.

Between the lines: Trump’s participation likely drove outsized interest in the event initially, given his absence from the debate stage during the Republican presidential primary. Without Trump, those five debates saw much smaller ratings compared to the primary debates he participated in during the 2016 and 2020 election cycles. Still, Biden’s poor performance probably stole the show, as evidenced by millions of people engaging with viral clips of the president’s stumbles online.

The big picture: The power of political debates has been in question for years as networks struggled to come up with formats that would not only attract candidates to the stage but also attract audiences who have become accustomed to getting news clips from social media instead of live television. ABC News and CNN had to cancel their debates planned ahead of the New Hampshire primary after only one candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, accepted an invitation to appear on stage.

Yes, but: Thursday’s event demonstrated the power of debates in showing the American people what candidates look like in an unscripted and high-pressure environment.