By now most reasonable people–even, grudgingly, most Obama supporters–are in agreement that Mitt Romney ‘won’ the first Presidential debate. Another ‘winner’ wasn’t so obvious–ABC TV won the ratings war for debate coverage narrowly over NBC, CBS and the cable news outlets.
ABC’s coverage, anchored by George Stephanopoulos and Dianne Sawyer, drew 11.25 million viewers. The network’s post debate ‘analysis’ show drew an impressive 8.865 viewers. ABC’s debate numbers are up slightly from 2008 when right around 11 million people watched. Once you look past ABC’s performance things get interesting–both of the other ‘legacy networks’ saw big jumps in viewership from 2008. 11.1 million viewers tuned in to NBC, up from 7.1 million in 2008. CBS’s viewership jumped from 7.6 million in 2008 to 10.6 million this year. Fox TV (not Fox News) also covered the debate for the first time–more about them in a moment.
The performance of the cable news outlets was somewhat uneven. The viewership on Fox News Channel was up significantly over 2008–10.436 million people tuned in for Obama v. Romney I compared to 8.2 million four years ago. CNN went the other way–6.1 million viewers in 2012 represented a drop of one million from the 7.1 million in 2008. MSNBC brought up the rear among the three major cable news networks with 4.7 million viewers but that represented a strong improvement over 2008 when 3.9 million tuned in.
Perhaps the most interesting development was the debut of Fox TV as a Presidential debate broadcaster. The network has done little, if any, news coverage throughout their relatively short history but turned in a strong first time effort with 7 million viewers.
Overall, viewership for the first Presidential debate was up significantly from four years ago. 67 million people watched Obama v. Romney I, 15 million more than watched the first debate of the 2008 election cycle. Even with the improvement it fell far short of the all time record–81 million people tuned in in 1980 to watch Ronald Reagan skewer Jimmy Carter with his infamous ‘There You Go, Again’ quip.
So what does all of this mean? At first glance it appears to be a victory for the traditional broadcast TV networks which have been declining in importance over the past couple of decades. A closer look at their demographics, however, suggests that they may have been the beneficiary of a ‘captive audience’ more than anything else. Nearly half (31 million) of all debate viewers were 65 or older. This is also the group least likely to subscribe to cable or satellite TV. Older Americans are the target of ‘scare tactics’ from both parties in every major election and are most likely to be party loyalists. Even if they’re not since they’re less likely to have cable/satellite options they have limited choices for alternative viewing. If all four networks are airing the debate they might as well pick one and ABC was the beneficiary of this ‘TV dial roulette’.
At the other end of the spectrum, young voters–credited for energizing Obama’s campaign in 2008–are tuning out in droves. Only 12 million of the total viewership was in the 18 to 24 age group. ‘Old media’ scolds will likely spin this as a bad reflection on the civic consciousness of younger Americans, but in reality it’s a good thing. This group is waking up to the scam that is the two party political duopoly and as the most likely group to have cable/satellite access has no problem finding something better to watch.