Last night, I found myself doing something I almost never do: watching the Fox News Channel.
While I tend to avoid cable news like the plague, I couldn’t help tuning in to watch the spectacle of the first Republican presidential debate… and apparently I wasn’t alone.
Last night’s debate earned a 16.0 Nielsen rating. In other words, roughly 16% of American households with a TV set were watching Fox News between the hours of 9 and 11 p.m. EST. According to Nielsen, that translates to roughly 24 million viewers.
The debate got better ratings than the last game of this year’s NBA Finals, which earned a 15.9 Nielsen rating and attracted 23 million viewers.
On a typical night, Fox News only attracts about 1-2% of the American audience, and the most highly-rated Republican debate from the last election attracted just 5%.
The Democratic debates in 2008 — featuring a younger Hillary Clinton and an upstart Senator named Barack Obama — drew record numbers of viewers, but even they never hit the 10% mark.
The first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the 2012 race got a Nielsen rating of 27.0, but it was broadcast on four different stations (including network channels). It was also held just a month before the actual election, while last night’s debate took place a full 15 months ahead of time.
There were plenty of reasons to tune in last night, though the ongoing Trump circus was probably a major contributing factor to the debate’s high level of viewership.
But whatever their motivations were, 24 million Americans turned on the Fox News Channel to watch the debate last night, giving the 20-year-old network its highest rated telecast ever.