Reports put total viewers at 8.32 million

Thursday’s CNN/L.A. Times Democratic debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton pulled in the highest cable debate numbers in history by a wide margin.

Overnight reports put total viewers at 8.32 million — far ahead of CNN’s South Carolina debates, held two weeks ago. Those earlier debates had previously led the debate ratings rankings with an unusually large aud of 4.91 million.

The Thursday debate took place during primetime, overperforming despite a programming slot opposite new episodes of popular shows such as the season premiere of “Lost” on ABC and “The Celebrity Apprentice” on NBC.

A front-loaded campaign season has made January prime viewing season for politics, and coverage of primaries and debates have been pulling in unusually high ratings all month.

“We’re having kind of a first-ever referendum — almost a national primary,” said CNN president Jonathan Klein, analyzing the ever-increasing popularity of the political coverage. “We’ve got some very vivid characters running for president and some very stark storylines that are easy to access, and that adds to the fever.”

These ratings bring the cabler’s debates within striking distance of similar programming on broadcast: ABC’s Democratic debate on Jan. 5 earned 9.36 million viewers; 3.58 million of those viewers were in the key news demo of adults 25-54. In the same demo, the CNN debate pulled din 3.26 million. In young viewers 18-34, CNN actually beat the ABC debate 1.25 million to 1.13 million.

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