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ABC tops V.P. debate ratings

Network lands 13.1 million viewers Thursday

The second bananas came in first in a big way Thursday night, as a jaw-dropping 70 million viewers tuned in to see the first and only vice presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, according to Nielsen estimates.

Analysis as to who won the set-to broke down mostly along party lines, but there was a clear winner among the event’s cable nets, as the debate marked Fox News’ highest-rated telecast in its history, with 11.1 million viewers. CNN drew 10.7 million while MSNBC brought in 4.4 million.

Among the broadcasters, ABC prevailed with 13.1 million, followed by NBC (12.8 million) and CBS (11.1 million). In total the debate ran live on 11 broadcast and cable outlets.

The numbers for Biden and Palin well outpaced those for the 2004 matchup between Dick Cheney and John Edwards (43.6 million), and bested those of the only other veepstakes featuring a female candidate, the 1984 face-off between George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro (56.7 million).

Perhaps most significant: The Delaware senator and Alaska governor attracted significantly more eyeballs than did this year’s first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain (52.4 million viewers).

Expectations for Thursday’s event–which aired live from St. Louis’ Washington University–ran high, at least for its potential entertainment value. Palin, the Republican nominee, had dominated water-cooler chat for weeks following her series of TV interviews and a pair of widely viewed spoof segments by her doppelganger, Tina Fey, on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”