CNN President Jeff Zucker is wearing a big smile today. CNN pulled in about 23 million viewers last night during the second Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. From 8:15 p.m. to 11:15 p.m. EDT, CNN drew 22.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen Fast National ratings data. The network essentially matched Fox News, whose debate last month -- the first in the Republican primary race -- earned 24 million viewers.
That's the kind of number that one sees on a popular network show like Fox's "Empire," which took in over 23 million viewers during its season finale back in April.
The network's own media correspondent, Brian Stelter, noted that CNN's best performing primary debate before Wednesday was between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in January of 2008, which averaged 8.3 million viewers.
Earlier Wednesday, Zucker was hedging in an interview when Huffington Post's Michael Calderone asked if CNN might draw more than Fox's 24 million viewers. "We have no expectation of that," Zucker said. "None. Absolutely none."
Rightwing radio host Hugh Hewitt, who served as a questioner during the CNN debate, had previously told anchor Don Lemon that "our audience is going to be bigger than the first debate."
CNN may not have surpassed Fox, but they essentially matched them, without the advantage of being first or a high-profile partnership with Facebook. Moderator Jake Tapper was bullish in the build up. “I hope we get the same or equal,” Tapper he told the Daily Beast, “but that’s a pretty high bar.”
Online, CNN's event peaked at 921,000 concurrent live streams and saw 4.5 million total live video starts of the debate across digital platforms, a significant number of that represents a growing population of cord-cutters who were allowed to watch without a cable TV subscription.
GOP front-runner Donald Trump reacted to the ratings on Twitter, asking for a gift bag:
Just announced that in the history of @CNN, last night’s debate was its highest rated ever. Will they send me flowers & a thank you note?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 17, 2015
The channel pitched its debate as a more aggressive showdown than the first one hosted by Fox News, hyping a smaller audience and candidate-on-candidate combat. In a WWE-style intro, a classic announcer voice called the “double-header” debate an epic “rematch."
Wednesday's debate dethroned CNN's previously most-watched program ever, a special “Larry King Live” in 1993 that pitted Ross Perot against Al Gore, drawing 16.8 million viewers.