2020 Presidential Debates Will Set TV and Online Audience Records

2020 Presidential Debate
Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

Expect the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, to break total viewership records that were set in 2016’s first debate.

An average audience of 84 million watched Trump duke it out with Hillary Clinton on TV, with online streams also seeing record views.

This time around, a higher audience approaching 90 million is easy to anticipate considering the hypercharged political environment, heightened even more by the recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the political fallout surrounding her replacement.

The debates will also see record numbers watching online, with VIP estimating the digital audience to be at least 10 million. For context, this year’s Super Bowl saw 99.9m watch on TV, with a further 2.2m on digital.

The second and third presidential debates will also see higher viewership than in 2016. The second debate in particular, on Oct. 15, will benefit by not being scheduled as it was last year, opposite “Sunday Night Football” on NBC. “Thursday Night Football” tends to have lower-marquee matchups. The third debate is scheduled for Oct. 22, while the sole vice presidential debate will be held Oct. 7. 

The political conventions hit streaming highs last month as their TV audiences declined versus 2016. It’s possible that increased online streams for the debate will result in TV ratings taking a hit, too. 

But August’s conventions may not be a reliable precedent on which to model the debate audience, considering the younger, more digital friendly skew of the Democratic National Convention was different than the older, more traditional audience that turned out for the Republicans. 

In the four years since the debates last took place, at least 16.3 million U.S. households have canceled their MVPD subscription. Some of these have switched to VMVPD services such as Sling TV or YouTube TV, while others have made the move to antenna-only distribution. Nielsen’s most recent estimate is that there are 121 million TV homes in the U.S. Confusingly, Nielsen’s estimate includes broadband-only homes, which S&P Global recently estimated to make up 29.5% of U.S. households.

A large chunk of the viewing universe therefore is online only, or online dominant, and can be expected to tune in via these means. The exact share is hard to predict, given the obfuscation in 2016 on exactly who watched where. In 2016, each online platform had a different definition for its reported viewing, ranging from total streams in the entire day to anyone watching a video for a minimum of three seconds.

Short of a miraculous decision to report a consistent metric such as average audience watching live across online streams, it will be murky at best to attribute a total audience figure to online this year. Surely more Americans will have streamed this year’s debate than in 2016; an online audience of at least 20 million seems within reason.

Much as a demographic shift is creating new important political issues to be debated, it is also setting the groundwork for an election not so far away when a higher share of viewing will come from streaming. The 2020 cycle could be traditional TV’s last hurrah as the dominant platform for watching the debates.