Trump-Clinton debate expected to shatter records

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The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump promises to be the most watched ever, with an audience that could exceed 100 million people, according to experts interviewed by The Hill. 

A debate with an audience that size would be something never seen before in U.S. politics and would be a figure close to what the Super Bowl gets.

{mosads}The figure would be even more remarkable in an era in which Americans have countless cable and streaming options.

The 1983 finale of “M*A*S*H” is the only television show that has hit the 100 million mark. Last year’s Super Bowl in which the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers attracted 111.9 viewers, and pop star Katy Perry’s performance at the 2015 Super Bowl had 118.5 million viewers.

In 2012, the first two presidential debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney averaged 66.4 million viewers across broadcast and cable outlets CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, PBS, C-SPAN, Univision and others. 

Monday’s debate, hosted by NBC News anchor Lester Holt from Hofstra University in New York, will be carried by all of the broadcast networks, the cable news networks, Univision, PBS and a number of streaming options.

Experts in both politics and television are expecting huge numbers because they have already witnessed one of the most dramatic, volatile and unpredictable presidential races in U.S. history.

Much of the anticipation is driven by Trump, the television personality turned Republican presidential nominee who created a ratings bonanza for cable networks during the GOP primary.

CNN and FOX News both scored record viewership for a primary debate as Trump battled his Republican rivals — and news anchors, most memorably Megyn Kelly of Fox.

“I think debate ratings, especially the first one, will be through the roof, astronomical, and may even approach Super Bowl numbers of viewers,” says Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University and author of the book “New New Media.”

It’s not just Trump who is driving interest. This is also the first presidential debate to pit a male candidate against a female candidate as Democrat Hillary Clinton seeks to become the first woman to be elected president.

“Viewers sense the potential for drama and the unpredictable,” said Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University who thinks the size of the audience will surpass the record of 80 million who watched the 1980 contest between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — who like Trump entered politics with a background in entertainment.

The Carter-Reagan showdown got a huge audience at the time when Americans had fewer alternatives on television, and it was the only time the two men debated.

According to a Morning Consult poll released Monday, nearly 75 percent of registered voters plans to watch the first Trump-Clinton debate. If that pans out, it would mean 95 million people tuning in.

The two will debate two more times on Oct. 9 and Oct. 19.

Their running mates, Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine, will debate on Oct. 4, though that is not expected to be a ratings hit: The 2012 version between Vice President Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) drew just over 51 million viewers. 

Levinson predicts the debate will hit 100 million viewers, and that social media will drive even more people to the contest.

“The reason, of course, is the extraordinary interest in this presidential election, featuring two unprecedented and highly controversial candidates,” he said. “The first woman [to be nominated by a major party] versus someone with zero political experience or government service.”

Brian Flood, a media reporter for, went even higher.

“I think the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will surpass 100 million viewers. I’ll make my official prediction 112 million,” he said. “I feel that it will be one of the most-watched TV events in the history of the medium.”

McCall adds another reason for the likely record-breaking numbers: anticipation.

“This first Trump-Clinton debate has been getting a lot of hype from pundits and talking heads who are suggesting this debate could be determinative in the campaign,” he said. “I am not convinced it will be the major factor in the election outcome, but that’s the narrative being fed out there.”

One factor could drive down the debate’s ratings: It’s going head-to-head with “Monday Night Football,” something that led Trump to criticize the Commission on Presidential Debates earlier this year.

The game begins on ESPN at 8:30  p.m. Eastern, a half-hour before the debate is scheduled to begin. “Monday Night Football” averaged 12.9 million viewers per week during the 2015 season.

While the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons will enter the game with a combined record of 1-3, football tends to defeat all comers when it comes to television ratings and is likely to take a chunk of the viewership.

“In ‘Monday Night Football’ versus Trump and Hillary, everybody loses,” says Dave Briggs, a former Fox News host who jumped over to NBC Sports in 2013 as a studio host.

“Bare minimum, even a seemingly regional NFL game between Atlanta and New Orleans will draw 10–12 million viewers. The debates will win the night but never pull away many of those 10 million Falcons, Saints and, most importantly, fantasy football fans,” he said.

It’s not unusual for debates to go up against sporting events.

Presidential debates often compete with football games and Major League Baseball’s World Series.

“The third debate in 2012 took on ‘Monday Night Football’ and Game 7 of baseball’s National League Championship Series and still drew just under 60 million viewers,” Briggs says. 

Chad Wilkinson, a former cable news executive producer who is now president of Liberty Media Strategies, believes the NFL will make it impossible for Trump and Clinton to get 100 million, or even 80 million viewers.

“We are looking at massive viewing numbers for the first presidential debate but because of ‘Monday Night Football’ on ESPN, we won’t see a record,” he said.

Wilkinson still puts his final prediction above Romney and Obama first debate in 2012, at 73 million to 75 million viewers.

Tags Commission On Presidential Debates debates Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Mike Pence Paul Ryan Tim Kaine
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