UPDATED: The first Republican presidential debate of the season without front-runner Donald Trump generated smaller viewer interest than all but one of this cycle’s prior GOP gatherings, according to preliminary Nielsen estimates — even if did top the most recent edition with the party’s front-runner and deliver the network’s second largest audience ever.
According to Nielsen estimates, Fox News Channel’s debate from Iowa averaged 12.5 million viewers Thursday night, including 3.5 million in the 25-54 news demo. This is up from 11.1 million for the most recent GOP debate, on Fox Business Network earlier this month, but it stands as the second lowest-rated of the six Republican gatherings this cycle.
So far in 2016, last night’s 12.5 million stands as the largest audience of three combined Republican and Democratic debates. Next up is a Republican debate on ABC, set for Saturday, Feb. 6.
Meanwhile, the combined viewership of CNN and MSNBC, which covered Trump’s competing Iowa event last night, was about 2.7 million.
Curiosity over the unpredictable Trump fueled record tune-in for the first GOP debate last summer, as Fox News Channel drew 24 million in August — the largest ever audience for a non-sports cable program — and CNN followed that up a month later with a little over 23 million. Ratings dipped for the subsequent four debates (ranging between 11.1 million and 18.2 million), though they remained higher than in years past.
The Democratic debates have rated lower, but at least some of this is due to three of them being scheduled in lower-profile timeslots on the weekend. The peak viewership came on a Tuesday last October, when CNN drew 15.8 million viewers.
Trump on Tuesday announced that he would not attend Thursday’s debate over his objections to Fox News Channel’s anchor and debate moderator Megyn Kelly. “Megyn Kelly’s really biased against me,” he said in an Instagram video that day. “She knows that. I know that. Everybody knows that. Do you really think she can be fair at a debate?”
He then appeared on Wednesday’s edition of “The O’Reilly Factor,” helping boost the show to a two-month high of 3.8 million viewers. Host Bill O’Reilly tried to persuade Trump to reconsider and attend the debate. “You are depriving people of seeing you in a forum they want to see you in,” O’Reilly said to Trump before asking him point blank if he’d reconsider. “You and I had an agreement that you would not ask me that,” responded Trump.