Trump and Biden

More than 65 million people watched the first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden Tuesday night. JULIO CORTEZ/PATRICK SEMANSKY/AP

More than 65 million people watched the first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden Tuesday night.

The television audience for the debate was down from the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it was higher than almost every other debate in recent years.

Tuesday’s clash was the biggest event on American TV since the Super Bowl last February.

Preliminary Nielsen ratings showed an average audience of roughly 64.7 million viewers across eight channels for the entirety of Tuesday’s prime time event.

The preliminary ratings include only Americans who watched at home on television. An unknown number of people live-streamed the debate on the internet, listened on the radio, and watched in other ways, which means the total audience easily surpassed 65 million.

Finalized Nielsen TV ratings figures are set to be released later in the day on Wednesday.

Some campaign officials and media executives predicted that the total audience would surpass the 2016 record, when the same group of channels cited above had a combined average of 75.8 million viewers.

(The final total for that debate, across 13 channels, was 84 million viewers, which smashed prior records for presidential debates.)

Politics fatigue may have been a factor in the lower level of viewership in 2020. Another reason may be the cringeworthy nature of Trump’s conduct. Many critics said afterward that it was the worst debate in modern American history.

Yet another factor to consider: The pandemic’s impact on broadcast television. With few new shows on prime time TV, broadcast viewership levels are lower than they were in 2016, which meant the debate had a smaller lead-in audience than it otherwise would have.

Streaming options are also more popular now than they were four years ago, so a greater number of people likely watched via live-streaming.

Despite the uncomfortable nature of Trump’s interruptions and the unbelievable nature of many of his claims, most viewers did keep watching until the end of the debate, according to the preliminary Nielsen data. Total viewership was quite consistent throughout the event.

Streaming viewership on CNN.com also peaked toward the end of the debate, at 10:20 p.m., according to internal metrics.