When Joe Biden and Donald Trump face off in the first of three US presidential debates tonight, it will likely draw a television audience of near 100 million viewers. That could be the last time a live TV event—other than the Super Bowl—attracts so many eyeballs at once.
Due to the acceleration of cord-cutting, and the unique importance of the 2020 US presidential election, there is no guarantee debates in future years—or any non-sporting event—will be able to generate such a significant viewership on linear TV. Since the 1970s, the debates have typically brought in between 50 and 70 million US viewers across all networks. The first 2016 debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton drew a record 84 million live viewers, beating the record set by the 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
Through the 1980s, the debates aired only on ABC, CBS, and NBC. In the 1990s they added Fox and CNN to the mix, and in the 2000s they added some cable news channels, including Fox News and MSNBC. Today, the debates are aired on all of these networks, plus PBS, CSPAN, Spanish-language channels like Telemundo and Univision, and more. Other than perhaps the State of the Union address, no live event is broadcast on as many US networks simultaneously than a presidential debate.
Tonight’s debate starts at 9pm US eastern time and will air on all major networks and cable news channels. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace will moderate. CSPAN will also stream the debate for free on YouTube. The second debate will be held Oct. 15, while the third and final presidential debate will be Oct. 22. The vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence will be Oct. 7 at 9pm in Salt Lake City, Utah, hosted by USA Today journalist Susan Page.
The debates are a reminder that, even in an age of streaming and media fragmentation, TV can still broadcast a single event live to a mass audience better than any other medium. But those types of events are increasingly hard to find. The Super Bowl, which reached 102 million US viewers this year, is one. The FIFA World Cup is another (the 2018 final was watched by 1 billion viewers around the world).
Outside of momentous occasions in sports, the events that used to be able to draw big live TV audiences—primarily award shows and series finales—no longer reach the same kind of audience. Gone are the days when the Oscars could generate 50 million viewers, or a TV show’s final episode could reliably yield even more than that. The 1998 Seinfeld series finale, for instance, was watched by 76 million US viewers.
There’s reason to believe future debates won’t create nearly as much interest as this year’s. Trump is a uniquely erratic figure in American politics. The potential for something historically bizarre to occur is not insignificant. It also remains one of Trump’s last chances to change the narrative of the race before the November election, as Biden has maintained a consistent lead in the polls for months.
In four years, with different candidates on stage and a US population that relies far less on television than it does today, the debates are likely to begin a rapid decline in viewership. But tonight, live TV will have the another opportunity to prove its importance to global discourse. Maybe for the last time.