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Fox News grabs highest ratings for CNN Presidential Debate

The debate was watched by more than 13 million people across Fox News broadcast, cable and digital properties, compared to over 10 million for CNN.

The debate was watched by more than 13 million people across Fox News broadcast, cable and digital properties, compared to over 10 million for CNN.

Composite photo of Donald Trump, Joe Biden
Former President Donald Trump (left) and President Joe Biden. (Photos by Gage Skidmore)

More Americans watched the CNN Presidential Debate on the Fox News Channel and related properties than any other cable or broadcast network Thursday night, according to data released by Nielsen late Friday afternoon.

Around 13.421 million people tuned in to watch the CNN Presidential Debate simulcast across the Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox network and Fox Nation, the ratings data showed, which included out-of-home viewing.

Preliminary data released by Nielsen — which did not include viewership figures for out-of-home participants, including those watching at bars, restaurants or other public space — showed Fox News was the most-watched network carrying the debate on television, with 8.82 million viewers tuning in compared to CNN’s 8.75 million viewers.

When accounting for out-of-home viewing, CNN had a slight edge on Fox News, with 9.530 million viewers watching on the cable channel compared to 9.276 million on Fox News. That said, Fox News Media still won the night when including its simulcast on the Fox Business Network, which had 397,000 overall viewership, according to Nielsen ratings. Fox News Media also produced coverage of the CNN Presidential Debate simulcast for the Fox broadcast network, which had 3.677 million viewers.

In total, across all broadcast and cable channels, Fox News Media came out on top with 13.35 million people tuning in to the Fox network, Fox News and Fox Business Network. CNN had slightly more than 10 million viewers across its own cable networks, which include CNN en Español and HLN.

On broadcast TV, ABC won the night with 9.21 million people watching a simulcast of the CNN Presidential Debate, compared to 5.39 million on NBC and 5.011 million on CBS. A simulcast of the debate aired by MSNBC placed third across all cable news channels, with the network grabbing 4.122 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings.

The leading candidates — incumbent President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — agreed several weeks ago to break from convention and appear at the first presidential debate produced by any broadcast or cable news network in more than 30 years. The non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which typically organizes numerous forums among leading candidates in election years, was not involved in the CNN Presidential Debate.

In keeping with the spirit of past debates, CNN offered a live feed of the event to any broadcast or cable network that wanted to simulcast it. Networks that accepted CNN’s offer had to agree to not obscure the CNN logo during the debate and to refer to the event as the “CNN Presidential Debate” in on-air and online promotions.

Fox was one of more than two dozen networks to accept CNN’s offer, with the debate also simulcast on all major broadcast networks, MSNBC, NewsNation, Newsmax, One America News, Scripps News, Bloomberg, BBC News, Sky News and other outlets.

On Friday, CNN said more than 47.9 million people watched the CNN Presidential Debate on television, with the network apparently collating ratings data from its own channels and those that aired the simulcast.

In an article published on the CNN Business website, the network initially touted itself as the winner of the night by combining preliminary data reflecting CNN’s ratings with HLN and CNN en Español, according to an initial version of the story reviewed by The Desk.

As written, the CNN Business article said the network “drew 9.04 million viewers across its flagship channel, CNN Español and HLN,” while claiming the “right-wing talk channel Fox News drew 8.8 million viewers.” The article didn’t include ratings data from Fox Business Network, which also aired as simulcast of the CNN Presidential Debate. Around 372,000 viewers watched the debate on Fox Business, according to preliminary data at the time, putting Fox News’ coverage of the CNN Presidential Debate in front of 9.187 million Americans, compared to 9.04 million viewers across CNN-owned channels.

CNN Business amended its article after this reporter called attention to the disparity through a social media post.

CNN still won the night among viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 years old (A25-54), the demographic that is most-attractive to broadcast and cable TV advertisers. Among the A25-54 demographic, more than 3.379 million people tuned in, compared to 1.769 million on Fox News and 615,000 on MSNBC.

Traditionally, presidential debates are aired uninterrupted. But CNN offered two commercial breaks during its debate, with networks simulcasting the event allowed to sell inventory for their own stations and affiliates — a rare instance in which the A25-54 demographic might be somewhat important to a network.

It certainly will be to ABC News, which is set to host its own presidential debate involving Trump and Biden on Tuesday, September 10.

The preliminary Nielsen ratings for the CNN Presidential Debate appear below:

Overall Viewers (Preliminary)

  • Fox News Channel: 8.815 million
  • CNN: 8.747 million
  • ABC: 8.696 million
  • NBC: 5.17 million
  • CBS: 4.812 million
  • MSNBC: 3.935 million
  • Fox (network): 3.481 million
  • Fox Business Network: 372,000

A25-54 Viewers (Preliminary)

  • CNN: 3.013 million
  • ABC: 2.238 million
  • Fox News Channel: 1.607 million
  • NBC: 1.443 million
  • Fox (network): 1.399 million
  • CBS: 1.301 million
  • MSNBC: 566,000
  • Fox Business Network: 74,000

Overall Viewers (with out-of-home)

  • CNN: 9.53 million
  • Fox News Channel: 9.276 million
  • ABC: 9.21 million
  • NBC: 5.39 million
  • CBS: 5.011 million
  • MSNBC: 4.122 million
  • Fox (network): 3.677 million
  • Fox Business Network: 397,000

A25-54 Viewers (with out-of-home)

  • CNN: 3.379 million
  • ABC: 2.431 million
  • Fox News Channel: 1.769 million
  • NBC: 1.521 million
  • CBS: 1.388 million
  • Fox (network): 1.489 million
  • MSNBC: 615,000
  • Fox Business Network: 84,000

Editor’s note: This story was updated from an earlier version to include finalized data, which reflects out-of-home viewing across the major broadcast and cable networks. Data for other channels, including NewsNation and Newsmax, were not available as of Friday afternoon.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.