UPDATE with final stats: An average of 14 million viewers tuned in to CNBC’s GOP debate last night, making it the most watched program in the network’s history. That includes 3.9M news demo viewers, and 3.4M viewers in the 18-49 age bracket.
The debate averaged 3.5 times as many total viewers and 1.8 times as many adults 25-54 as the network’s previous record holder, a February 22, 2002 Winter Olympics telecast. The debate averaged 4.2 times as many total viewers and 3.9 times as many adults 25-54 as had CNBC’s 2011 Republican presidential debate.
CNBC called it a “hard-hitting debate that changed the course of the Republican primary.” The RNC called it an embarrassment.
Moderated by CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood, the debate was held at the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
The 14M is a great number for any other presidential-race cycle at this stage. But 2016 is the cycle in which the race got turned into the country’s favorite reality TV series. For comparison sake, Fox News Channel’s GOP debate in August clocked 24 million viewers, and CNN’s GOP debate last month logged 23 million. These debates also set records for those cable news networks and for basic cable overall. CNN’s Democratic debate earlier this month averaged 16 million viewers, according to Nielsen stats.
Last night’s debate was also the first to air in the teeth of a World Series game.
CNBC’s debate was plenty zippy, but mostly because GOP candidates clashed with moderators. With questions like the one to Mike Huckabee as to whether “as a minister” he thought Trump has the “moral authority” to be President, the CNBC debate crew appeared to have had a strategy to provoke candidates into YouTube-ready moments. Problem was the candidates declined to play along. And CNBC seems to have forgotten that if there’s one thing that unites the GOP, it’s a sense of victimhood at the hands of “mainstream media.” CNBC pretty much handed an opportunity to any of the panelists. “This is not a cage match!” Cruz shot at CNBC afterbook version of a presidential campaign.” For good measure, Cruz threw in that “nobody watching at home believes that any of the moderators have any intention of voting in a Republican primary.”
Trump took a victory lap in his closing statement, noting that if he can out-negotiate a ratings-starved financial network, just think what he can when negotiating with all those tough international rulers! Trump reminded viewers, on CNBC’s time, of his recent beat-down of the network over the debate length, elevating the event to a level of national importance.
“They lost a lot of money [on ad spots], everybody said it couldn’t be done. … And in about two minutes, I renegotiated it down to two hours so we could get the hell out of here.” CNBC’s John Harwood protested the debate was always going to be two hours. Trump disputed. The crowd cheered – and somewhere in Moscow…