NBC tops broadcast, cable during first Clinton-Trump debate

Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, listens as Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, speaks at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Monday.  Photo by Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg

NBC drew the largest audience among broadcast and cable networks for the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, attracting about 15.6 million viewers.

More than 73 million people watched the debate across 11 cable and broadcast networks, according to preliminary Nielsen data supplied by the networks. That’s bigger than the TV audience four years ago and indicates total viewership may set a record when Nielsen reports full numbers for all networks later Tuesday.

The largest audience ever for a presidential debate occurred in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which drew 80.6 million viewers. In 2012, 67.2 million viewers tuned in to see the first match-up between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Among cable networks, Fox News drew 11.4 million viewers, CNN attracted 9.8 million viewers and MSNBC drew an audience of 4.9 million, according to a statement from CNN. Fox Business Network averaged 673,000 total viewers and CNBC had 520,000, according to Fox.

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ABC came in second among broadcasters with about 11.6 million viewers; CBS finished third with about 10 million; and Fox finished fourth with about 5 million, according to a release from Univision. The Spanish-language network drew about 2.2 million viewers. The ratings are subject to revisions later.

The figures represent averages across the entire debate, which lasted more than 90 minutes starting at 9 p.m. New York time. Among the broadcast networks, the audience was similar during each of the first three half-hours of the debate, suggesting that viewers stuck with the program throughout the telecast.

The event, moderated by Lester Holt of NBC News at Hofstra University in New York, marked the first time that voters could see the major-party nominees on the same stage. Clinton and Trump sparred over trade, the U.S. economy, race and foreign policy, showing their starkly different personalities and visions of the nation’s future.

The debate, which competed for viewers’ attention with “Monday Night Football” on ESPN, was ad-free, but TV networks sought to attract more viewers — and advertisers dollars — before and after the contests.

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PBS and C-Span numbers haven’t been reported and Nielsen will release revised ratings later Tuesday.