KEY POINTS

  • About 73.1 million people watched the first of three presidential debates on Tuesday, Nielsen reported.
  • The viewership estimate makes Tuesday's debate the third most-watched presidential debate ever. 
  • The size of the audience is notable considering that many experts and outlets argued that the event would likely attract close to 100 million viewers. 

About 73.1 million people watched President Donald Trump debate Democratic nominee Joe Biden on television Tuesday night, down from the record 84 million who watched Trump's first debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, Nielsen reported.

Even with the 13% drop from 2016 the clash between the president and the former vice president was the biggest event on American TV since the Super Bowl last February.

People stuck around for most of the debate, with little fluctuation in viewership from start to finish.

The viewership estimate makes Tuesday's debate the third most-watched presidential debate ever, also behind the 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, which drew 80.6 million viewers.

The size of the audience is notable considering that many experts and outlets argued that the event would likely attract close to 100 million viewers. 

That estimate may have missed because many consumers have ditched traditional cable TV for streaming options — which are not part of Nielsen's measurements.

Fox News attracted the biggest audience, with 17.8 million viewers, up from 11.4 million viewers four years ago. ABC was  second with 12.6 million viewers, followed by NBC, with 9.7 million. MSNBC drew 7.2 million and CNN drew 8.3 million viewers. CBS had the smallest audience,  6.4 million. 

On Wednesday, Trump kicked off his Minnesota fundraiser by bragging about the high TV ratings the debate received. 

The president also boasted Nielsen’s data on Twitter and said that the debate had the “HIGHEST CABLE TELEVISION RATINGS OF ALL TIME. SECOND HIGHEST OVERALL TELEVISION RATINGS OF ALL TIME. Someday these Fake Media Companies are going to miss me, very badly!!!”