Not only will Monday’s US presidential debate likely decimate the previous record of debate viewers, but it could well rival the audience of America’s biggest spectacle, the Super Bowl.
According to several media analysts and other industry experts, over 100 million Americans are expected to watch the first debate between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Sept. 26, to be moderated by NBC’s Lester Holt. The Super Bowl in February drew 112 million viewers (down from 114 million in 2015).
In terms of TV ratings, the Super Bowl is in a class by itself. Every game since 2010 has averaged more than 100 million viewers, and the only non-sports American broadcast to surpass 100 million viewers was the 1983 series finale of M*A*S*H, seen by 106 million people.
Monday night’s debate could change that, and perhaps become the most-watched single TV broadcast ever. It’s a tall task, but within the realm of possibility given the divisive election’s relentless media coverage and the mere existence of Trump, the celebrity businessman and television personality now on the verge of becoming US president.
The current debate record holder is the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, which drew 80 million viewers. Even if the ratings for Monday’s debate don’t quite reach Super Bowl levels, they should still beat that record, set 36 years ago. The 2012 debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney averaged about 67 million viewers.
One advantage modern debates have is that they’re available in many more places than they used to be. In addition to all the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC), Monday’s debate will be shown on cable news channels including CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, as well as dozens of online outlets, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Yahoo, and Hulu.
If the debate shatters records, it’ll be especially remarkable because ratings for major American TV events are down across the board. Last week’s Emmys brought in its lowest audience ever. Ratings for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio dropped 15% from the London games in 2012. And through two weeks of the NFL season, Monday Night Football ratings are sinking rapidly.
The political arena, on the other hand, is becoming more of a spectacle. The Republican debate on Fox News in August was the most-watched primary debate in history. Trump’s convention speech in July garnered 35 million viewers, slightly more than this year’s Oscars (which hit an eight-year low). NBC’s ”Commander-In-Chief Forum” was universally panned for Matt Lauer’s failures as a moderator, but it still reeled in 15 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched network broadcasts of the year.
A lot of that is due to how TV channels now promote political events. CNN advertises the debates as though they were pay-per-view boxing matches (video) or wrestling events. Countless hours of coverage have already been devoted to previewing and predicting the debates. Hours and hours more will go to assessing them, analyzing the aftermath, and setting a narrative as we head into the next debate—so we can do it all again.
No matter who “wins” Monday’s debate, it will be a uniquely American display of pageantry.