NEW YORK (AP) – The showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump turned out to be the most-watched presidential debate ever, with 84 million viewers. Preliminary data released earlier had estimated the audience at 73 million.
The Nielsen company said the viewership of 84 million, over 13 different networks, toppled a record that had stood for 36 years. The previous record for presidential debate viewership was the 80.6 million people who saw the only debate in 1980 between incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.
No debate since then had exceeded 70 million viewers.
Social media was humming, too, with Nielsen saying there were some 17.1 million Twitter interactions involving 2.7 million people on Monday. Tivo said that the moment during the debate that caused more people to pause their television and play back what was said came near the end, when Trump said that he will “absolutely support” Clinton if she is elected president.
Clinton has some bragging rights at home. When final results are in, the audience for her first presidential debate will more than double what her husband, former President Bill Clinton, received for his last presidential debate in 1996 (36.3 million viewers).
Only the Super Bowl annually commands a television audience of that size. The biggest audience in U.S. television history was the 114.4 million people who watched the 2015 Super Bowl between New England and Seattle.
The news was particularly good for NBC. Not only did it have more viewers than any other network showing the debate, but “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt’s reviews as moderator were more positive than those received by Today show co-host Matt Lauer for his “commander in chief forum” with Trump and Clinton earlier this month or by CNBC anchors when they moderated a Republican primary debate last fall.
Watching the debate was nerve-wracking for NBC Universal chief executive Steve Burke because of the pressure on Holt, Burke said during an appearance in London on Tuesday. Burke said Holt “ended up doing a very good job.”
Holt was not available for an interview on Tuesday.
Some Republicans were unhappy with Holt, suggesting that he was unfair because he asked tougher questions of Trump, and challenged the accuracy of the Republican’s statements on several issues.
That may account for an overnight change of thinking by the candidate. Interviewed by reporters immediately after the debate, Trump said he thought Lester “did a really good job” and that he thought Holt brought up the topics he wanted. The next morning, on Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends, Trump said he thought Holt earned a C or a C-plus for his debate performance, and that he asked unfair questions.
The second of three scheduled debates will be Oct. 9. The “town hall” style forum will be moderated by Martha Raddatz of ABC News and CNN’s Anderson Cooper
Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.