Trump-Biden presidential debate ratings fall 13% from 2016's record-setting first debate

Bill Keveney

The first head-to-head debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden received terrible reviews. And the ratings weren't all that hot, either, falling short of the record-setting audience for the opening presidential debate of 2016.

Tuesday's debate averaged 73.1 million viewers over 16 networks from approximately 9 to 11 p.m. EDT, according to Nielsen ratings data. 

That number represents a 13% drop from the record 84 million who tuned in on 13 networks for the opening debate between then-Republican nominee Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on Sept. 26, 2016.

President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Biden participated in the first of three scheduled presidential debates Tuesday in Cleveland.

Fox News Channel, the home network of debate moderator and "Fox News Sunday" anchor Chris Wallace, scored the largest audience, 17.8 million viewers, for the 96-minute debate period, according to Nielsen. ABC led the broadcast pack with 12.6 million viewers, followed by NBC (9.7 million), CBS (6.4 million) and the Fox broadcast network (5.4 million). CNN attracted 8.3 million viewers, while fellow cable network MSNBC drew 7.2 million for the debate.

Although Tuesday's audience total fell short of the 2015 number, it surpassed the three opening presidential debates preceding Clinton-Trump: George W. Bush vs. John Kerry in 2004 (62.5 million); Barack Obama vs. John McCain in 2008 (52.4 million); and Obama vs. Mitt Romney in 2012 (67.2 million). Other than the 2016 record-holder, only the sole 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (80.6 million) attracted a larger audience than the Biden-Trump match.

The Nielsen numbers do not reflect people watching on laptops or smartphones, a group that has grown since 2016.

Tuesday's Trump-Biden matchup was almost universally panned by TV commentators, with many criticizing Trump's immediate and constant interruptionsCNN anchor Jake Tapper called the debate "a hot mess inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck" and "the worst debate I have ever seen." Some responses weren't printable. Wallace received criticism from those who said he lost control of the event.

'I did as well as I could':Moderator Chris Wallace talks Trump-Biden debate

Chris Wallace of Fox News moderates the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Sept. 29 in Cleveland.

If the 2020 debates follow 2016's pattern, viewership will drop off in the next two scheduled head-to-heads. After the record 84 million viewers for the first Trump-Clinton encounter, the second 2016 presidential debate drew 66.5 million viewers, with the third experiencing an uptick to 71.6 million. (That cycle's only vice presidential debate, between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, averaged 37 million viewers, the lowest for a VP matchup since 2000.)

Two more presidential debates are scheduled, although some media and political commentators are suggesting they be shelved based on Tuesday's mess. Others, including 2016 Republican presidential debate moderator Megyn Kelly, are suggesting giving the moderator the power to cut off debaters' microphones

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which produces the debates and selects moderators, issued a statement Wednesday saying it would consider making changes to future debates "to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues" and expressing gratitude to Wallace for "the professionalism and skill" he brought to the event.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden argue about white supremacy and antifa at their first debate.

Later Wednesday, CBS News, citing an informed source, tweeted that the CPD "plans to issue strict new rules in the coming days that include cutting off a candidate's microphone if they violate the rules."

The next scheduled debate between Trump and Biden is an Oct. 15 town-meeting format in Miami that will be moderated by C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully. NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker will moderate the final head-to-head on Oct. 22 in Nashville.

Before those debates, USA TODAY Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page will moderate the sole vice presidential debate between incumbent VP Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris on Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City. (All debates start at 9 EDT/6 PDT and will last 90 minutes with no commercial interruptions.)