Roughly 12.8 million people watched the Republican primary debate on Fox News on Wednesday night — in line with expectations that the first debate of the 2024 presidential cycle would fall far short of the 24 million people who watched the comparable election-season kickoff eight years ago.
The Milwaukee debate featured more than a few compelling moments, including frequent clashes between newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy and his opponents, most notably former president Mike Pence and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. But it was no comparison, ratings-wise, to the 2015 event that featured the debate debut of Donald Trump. The reliable ratings magnet is running again, but he sat out Wednesday night’s event in favor of a pretaped Twitter interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Meanwhile, television viewership has broadly fallen off over the past decade, as fewer people are paying for and watching cable news.
Still, the network said, this week’s debate was the most-watched non-sports cable broadcast of the year.
In an interview ahead of the debate, co-moderator Bret Baier acknowledged that Trump’s presence might have increased viewership. “I think people who are ready to tune in to politics are going to tune in,” he said. “If the former president is on the stage, clearly numbers go up.”
Instead, Carlson posted his video interview with Trump on the social media platform X, previously known as Twitter, five minutes before the debate broadcast started.
Trump nodded to the counterprogramming strategy in his conversation with Carlson. “We’ll get bigger ratings using this crazy forum you’re using than probably the debate,” he said.
Trump’s prediction is impossible to verify. As of Thursday evening, the 46-minute-long video had more than 238 million “views,” but the platform’s standard for viewership is in no way comparable to the way that Nielsen — the gold standard for television measurement — tracks audience. The company now known as X acknowledges that a view can be triggered when a user sees a video for two seconds, even if they don’t watch it. Nielsen’s numbers are an extrapolation drawn from the average number of people watching a television show during one minute of programming.
Fox News has felt Trump’s absence before. In January 2016, when Trump withdrew at the last minute from a Fox-hosted debate ahead of the Iowa caucuses, the event was watched by 12.5 million people, a big drop from the first debate of the cycle and lower than the average of 15.5 million viewers who watched the 12 GOP primary debates that cycle.
Television industry veterans and academics said the debate was watchable, if not a barnburner.
At times, Baier and co-moderator Martha MacCallum stepped in to calm the crowd and, at one point, to urge Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to answer a question about whether Pence “did the right thing” on Jan. 6, 2021, when the former vice president presided over Congress’s certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory. At another point, Haley called on the Fox moderators to regain control of the event.
“I thought it was arguably more interesting than many of these early season ‘cattle call’ events have been in past cycles,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News executive who now runs Hofstra University’s school of communication. “Although the moderators lost control more than once, there were real and substantive exchanges and differences.”
Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, agreed. “It delivered as a dramatic event,” he said. He attributed the lower ratings to “casting,” arguing that Trump’s presence certainly would have boosted eyeballs.
Mark Feldstein, a veteran CNN journalist who now teaches at the University of Maryland, felt differently about the broadcast, which he called “a snoozer.”
“Last night’s debate will only serve to create more buildup for Trump when he does show, the better to steal the thunder — and goose the ratings — as usual,” Feldstein said.
The next debate is also in the Fox family, to be hosted by Fox Business Network on Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Once again, Trump’s potential attendance is sure to be the major storyline ahead of the debate.
2024 presidential election
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