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History Suggests Fox News Will Win Cable News Ratings for 1st Presidential Debate
Fox News has claimed most viewers for the first presidential debate in the last three cycles, but CNN has won two of those three in key demo
If history is any indicator, Fox News will handily sweep cable competitors CNN and MSNBC in total average viewers for Tuesday night’s presidential debate, the first between Republican incumbent President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The winner in the key demo of viewers between 25 and 54, however, might be CNN, which won the advertiser-coveted age demo two of the last three cycles.
In 2008, according to Nielsen Media Research, 8.211 million total average viewers watched Fox News as Democratic nominee Barack Obama took on his senatorial colleague Republican John McCain. CNN was close behind with 7.140 total average viewers for the 9 p.m. ET face-off, while MSNBC trailed behind with 3.922 million.
CNN was the winner that year in the demo, however: It had an average of 3.272 demo viewers. Fox News pulled in an average of 2.612 million viewers from 25 to 54 and MSNBC grabbed 1.691 million, on average.
In 2012, incumbent Obama squared off with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Fox News beat its total and demo 2008 numbers, as did MSNBC. CNN dropped some of its viewers from the previous cycle in both ratings categories.
Overall in 2012, 10.436 million total average viewers watched Fox News during the hour and a half or so that the debate aired. Of those, an average of 2.943 million were in the demo. In spite of falling behind its own 2008 totals, CNN was still in second place, beating MSNBC with 6.051 total average viewers and 2.372 million average demo viewers. MSNBC saw an average of 4.731 million total viewers, of whom 1.859 were in the demo.
When Trump came on the scene in 2016, his debate against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought all three networks highs in total viewers. Fox News and CNN saw more demo viewers, too, but MSNBC had fewer viewers between 25 and 54 than it did even in 2008.
Here’s how that broke down: For the 9 p.m. ET event, Fox News brought in an average of 11.427 million total viewers, CNN took in an average of 9.935 million total viewers and MSNBC saw an average of 4.914 million. In the demo, Fox News commanded an average of 3.548 million, CNN won with 4.501 average viewers between 25 and 54 and MSNBC got 1.585 million, on average.
Tuesday’s debate, held at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio, will be broadcasting across all three major cable news channels again. Fox News’ Chris Wallace is moderating the opening presidential debate, too, which will surely help his home network, while “Special Report” anchor Bret Baier and “The Story” anchor Martha MacCallum will co-anchor live coverage outside the venue from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET, as the debate goes on.
On CNN, Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper will start pre-debate coverage at 7 p.m. ET. At 8 p.m. ET, Cooper will be joined by Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Abby Phillip. Their coverage will end at 9 p.m. ET and pick back up for post-debate analysis at 10:30 p.m. ET, when the event concludes.
MSNBC will feature Rachel Maddow, Nicolle Wallace and Joy Reid ahead of the debate at 8 p.m. ET. At the debate’s 10:30 p.m. ET conclusion, they’ll join Brian Williams for post-debate coverage and analysis.
Whether the first Trump-Biden debate matchup will lead to record-breaking numbers remains to be seen, but Dom Caristi, a telecommunications professor at Ball State University, said it’s not likely that the first debate will see a noticeable increase in audience numbers.
“The proliferation of streaming services has created a world where absolutely nothing qualifies as ‘must-see TV’ anymore. There will be plenty of viewing choices for those seeking to avoid the event,” Caristi said. “The fact is that most who view the debates will be doing so largely to cheer for their candidate and to look for validation that they have made the correct choice. In theory, the debates ought to help voters decide. But in reality, they will only serve to reinforce the attitudes that people already have.”
J. Clara Chan contributed to this report.