NFL, Voter Fatigue Take a Bite Out of Trump-Clinton II Ratings

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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the town hall debate at Washington University.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the town hall debate at Washington University. Credit: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

On the heels of a record-shattering opening performance, the TV ratings for second presidential debate represented a return to normalcy of sorts -- or at least as close to "normal" as this election cycle is ever likely to get.

According to Nielsen final live-plus-same-day data, Sunday's town hall-style debate averaged 66.5 million viewers across 13 broadcast and cable networks, making it the most-watched second presidential debate since the Oct. 15, 1992 three-hander between President George H. W. Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and maverick Texas businessman H. Ross Perot. That showdown, which aired just four days after the first POTUS debate, delivered 69.9 million viewers, making it the most-viewed follow-up debate in history.

For any number of reasons, few ratings-watchers anticipated that Sunday's showdown would attain the dizzying heights of Trump-Clinton I, which drew a staggering 84 million viewers on Sept. 26. For one thing, the NBC broadcast network sat out the festivities altogether, airing instead its regularly scheduled "Sunday Night Football" clash between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. While not as competitive a match-up as the final score would seem to indicate, the Packers' 23-16 win helped shave some 16.6 million viewers off the debate tally.

The debate also ran up against the third and deciding game of the ALDS, in which the Toronto Blue Jays eliminated the Texas Rangers by way of a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th inning, and episode two of HBO's new Sunday night hit, "Westworld." Final ratings for both programs will be available Tuesday morning.

All told, the second presidential debate of this election cycle just edged the analogous 2012 clash between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. That debate averaged 65.6 million viewers.

Whether Sunday night's turnout was boosted by the leak of the now-infamous "Access Hollywood" tape just 48 hours prior to the broadcast is difficult to say with any certainty, but there is no question that many viewers bailed out on the contentious affair well before it huffed to a conclusion. According to analysis from Samba TV, 50% of Univision's 2.4 million viewers tuned out of the debate on or around the 30-minute mark, while half of the overall TV audience appeared to have churned away by the midway point.

As is generally the case with televised political debates, older Americans made up the better part of the audience for last night's 90-minute duel. According to Nielsen, the town hall drew 32.6 million adults age 55 years and up, a segment that accounted for 49% of the overall deliveries. Meanwhile, the much sought-after millennial crowd largely tuned out … at least as far as linear TV was concerned. While Nielsen did not include streaming averages in its data dump, adults 18-34 made up just 16% of the overall debate audience, with 10.7 million members of the demo watching via traditional TV.

Broken out by the individual networks carrying the debate feed, CBS beat all comers with an average draw of 16.4 million viewers, while ABC's coverage attracted 11.5 million viewers. CNN was the third most-watched TV outlet (11.2 million), while rival Fox News Channel drew 9.86 million viewers and MSNBC averaged 5.55 million viewers.

The third and final POTUS debate is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 19.

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