UPDATE: In final Nielsen nationals, Saturday’s debate rose to 13.33 million viewers and a 2.1 rating/8 share in the adults 18-49 demo.
The return of Donald Trump to the stage helped lift ratings for last night’s Republican presidential primary debate on ABC, which has drawn the largest audience for a political gathering of either party in 2016 — and the network’s largest non-sports audience on a Saturday in more than 14 years.
Nielsen estimates that 13.2 million watched the GOP New Hampshire debate from 8:15-10:45 p.m. ET — up from the 11.09 million who watched the Fox Business Network debate on Jan. 14 and the 12.47 million tuning in for the Trump-less Fox News Channel debate on Jan. 28. It also was much higher-rated than the two Democratic debates of the year on NBC (10.16 million on Jan. 17) and MSNBC (4.47 million last Thursday).
The ABC Republican debate special delivered the network’s largest audience on a Saturday since September 2001. In January 2012, a GOP debate on the Alphabet drew 6.27 million viewers.
While the viewership for the GOP New Hampshire debate was very impressive, especially for a Saturday night, it came nowhere close to the first two GOP debates last summer (both on higher-watched weeknights), which drew 24 million on Fox News Channel and a little over 23 million on CNN. The last Republican debate to draw more viewers than last night was the CNN gathering from Las Vegas in mid-December (18.16 million).
This was the first Republican debate on a broadcast network this cycle, and it came at a key time in the race, just three days before the first votes are cast in the New Hampshire primary. CBS will air the next GOP debate next Saturday from Greenville, South Carolina in advance of that state’s “first in the South” Republican primary on Feb. 20.
In the key news demo of adults 25-54, Saturday’s debate averaged 3.4 million, a little behind the most recent Fox News debate (3.5 million). The first Fox News Channel debate on Aug. 6 drew the most advertiser-friendly viewers for any debate this cycle (7.94 million).
Last night’s debate was moderated by ABC’s “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir and Martha Raddatz, co-anchor of the network’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” It featured seven presidential hopefuls, including front-runner Trump, and may be remembered most for improved performances by the three current or former governors on stage (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich) and Christie’s effective attacks against Marco Rubio.
The debate appears to have impacted ratings for the “5th Annual NFL Honors” on CBS, which averaged a preliminary 1.0 rating in 18-49 and 4.6 million viewers overall. While the total-viewer count was nearly on par with last year’s event on NBC (4.7 million), the demo score was down 17% (0.2). Among the awards handed out last night was the honor for League MVP, which went to Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
Post-primetime, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” delivered above-average overnight ratings for its telecast hosted by Larry David and featuring cameos by Bernie Sanders. Last night’s program averaged a 5.1 household rating/12 share in Nielsen’s metered markets and a 2.4 rating in adults 18-49 — up 9% in both categories from its season averages (4.7 in households, 2.2 in 18-49). In households, this ties with the Dec. 19 telecast hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as the show’s second highest of the season in its regular 11:30 p.m. timeslot, trailing only the night Trump hosted.