UPDATE with more reliable stats: An average of 22.9 million viewers watched CNN’s three-hour-plus GOP debate Wednesday night. That sets two records: biggest audience in CNN’s 30-year history and the longest presidential debate ever. An average of 6.9 million viewers fell into the news demographic, age 25-54, which is what cable news networks typically sell to advertisers. CNN noted this morning that last night’s debate copped an additional 4.5 million video streams.
CNN’s debate was panned this morning by some pundits as being overly long – a “three-hour debate from hell” that “tried the patience of candidates, operatives, and viewers,” blasted Politico, for instance. The ratings would seem to contradict that claim in re viewers at least. (Prior to last night’s debate, CNN’s highest-rated presidential primary debate was the California Democratic debate on January 31, 2008 between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, which averaged 8.3 million viewers. And the network’s most-watched program ever was that November 9, 1993 special Larry King Live trainwreck featuring Ross Perot and Al Gore.)
In re the debate trying the patience of candidates, a few of them seemed to be gasping for breath toward the end. Asked in the spin room after the orgy of access wrapped what had he learned in the debate, Donald Trump shot back to CNN that he’d learned he could stand at a podium for three hours. But, a candidate that hadn’t the patience, or stamina, for a three-hour debate isn’t going to do so well in the White House, noted some pundits this morning. White House spokesman Josh Earnest today described it best: “tough day at the airport.”
“You saw a dozen people in suits, lined up at kiosks in front of a plane,” he said during today’s White House briefing of last night’s debate. “They seemed angry, they seemed pessimistic, they were looking for somebody to threaten. But they also stood there for three hours, so you can hardly blame them.”
The debate also was nicked in some circled for a perceived lack of control by the moderators – our fave being the New York Daily News’ “Clown News Network” headline this morning. But, in advance of last night’s CNN clambake, RNC-picked moderator Hugh Hewitt had said a debate should be “all about the candidates and not about the panelists.” In advance of the debate, he told Politico (which also blasted last night’s debate), “hopefully Thursday’s headlines have nothing to do with panelists and moderators and everything to do with the exchanges between the candidates.” Which is what happened.
Mostly, navel lint gazers seemed unhappy with the show’s more than 3-hour length which, according to some pundits, is a record. According to GOP front-runner Trump, on today’s Morning Joe, “about a week ago, we got a call that they were going to make the debate almost an hour more. And you know what that is, that means the advertising is so dense and so deep and they’re getting tremendous numbers per minute and for half minute that they just added another 45 minutes to an hour to the debate.”
CNN’s overall crowd is close to, but not a match of the 24M who’d sat glued to the first GOP debate in August on Fox News Channel, which is that network’s biggest audience ever. The FNC crowd also is the biggest non-sports audience ever for cable news; CNN’s debate stat is No. 2.
FNC brought its debate in at a brisk two-hours-and-change, which made it challenging for the large crowd of candidates to get air time and some complained after the event. CNN’s debate was much longer, and added Carly Fiorina to the panel after she’d been crowned unofficial winner of FNC’s kids’ table debate.
Trump, who is happily taking credit for the surge in viewer interest this election cycle, got the most air time during last night’s debate. Trump enjoyed about 16 minutes of air time. In part, that’s because, being the front-runner in all polling, he was targeted the most by the other candidates and in each case was given time to respond, per rules of the debate.
After FNC celebrated its historic ratings with the August debate, Trump told CNN chief Jeff Zucker he wanted the ad dollar bonanza CNN was sure to enjoy with last night’s debate to go to charity.
Jeb Bush ranked No. 2 in airtime last night, with about 14 minutes of air time, followed by Carly Fiorina – a big win for the former HP CEO, given that she hadn’t even made to the big table at the FNC GOP debates. She’d participated in the kids’ table debate that came first that night and was declared the unofficial winner.
Chris Christie this morning complained on CNN he only got about seven minutes of air time during the orgy of self-promotion According to the network, he was a middle-of-the-pack-er, with about 12 minutes. Mike Huckabee snagged about 9 minutes. Scott Walker and John Kasich suffered the least air time with about 7 minutes.