That surpasses the 56.7 million people who tuned in to watch the 1984 debate between then VP George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro. And Biden/Palin beat the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, which drew an audience of 52.4 million last Friday night.*
The final Nielsen ratings show that during the 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. ET period the debate was scheduled, 47.8 million households were watching the 11 networks that carried the debate and that were monitored by Nielsen. The debate was carried by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Telefutura, Telemundo, CNBC, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News Network and BBC America. PBS, which also aired the debate, said it drew 3.5 million viewers.
So the new fall season has a hit! It's part drama, all reality show, with comedy interspersed. And the male and female leads are compelling characters with families that provide episodes of multiple storylines. The only problem is, vice presidential debates only happen on a quadrennial basis, and the combustible combination of factors creating intense interest in this campaign may only happen once in a lifetime.
Of course, anytime there is as big an event carried on multiple media outlets, it will dominate demographically. But it also stands in stark contrast to the new fall TV season in terms of a passion gap, as the highly hyped matchup between the possible veeps was water-cooler conversation that extended into the cocktail hour and again heated up over morning coffee.
Conversely, the buzz is quieter -- or nearly silent -- over the listless shows making this week's Nielsen top 10 list, as all the dramas and sitcoms achieving top 10 status either premiered this week to lower numbers than last fall's first showing, or were lower than this season's premieres.
Even "House," Fox's fall foundation on which the pre-"American Idol" scheduling strategy is built, is barely holding steady, delivering a fourth place 5.4/15 rating and share, which is slightly under its premiere. Down more sharply was CBS's "Two and a Half Men," which lost 11% of its adults in posting a seventh-place 4.7/11 finish.
And despite a plot twist that time traveled five years, ABC's "Desperate Housewives" had ratings stuck in the here and now, as its second place 7.1/16 was down 5% from last year. Lead-out "Brothers and Sisters" also made the list at No. 8, but lost 8% en route to a 4.6/11. And even Sunday's "Simpsons," which began its 20th season on Fox, fell 4% to a 10th place 4.5/12, despite an NFL lead-in from post-game show "The OT," which scored a sixth-place 4.9/15.
Indeed, the NFL seems to be filling the passion gap this fall season, as once again football games or football fragments -- like post- and pre-games -- blitzed the top 10. The top rating went to Fox's "Post Game" after its NFL overrun, which delivered a 7.4/23. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" game was third with a 6.9/17, and the preceding "Pre-Kick" on NBC was ninth with a 4.5/13. A night later many of the same people switched to ESPN to watch "Monday Night Football," which was fifth with a 5.0/14.
The concurrence of the political and programming seasons promises more surprises in terms of the Gallup and Nielsen polls, and the two intersect again next Tuesday as Messrs. McCain and Obama have their second debate. It's likely to be much more watched than round one, which fell on a Friday, when the "Main Street" both candidates court are out living their normal lives. But midweek, part of the Main Streeter's lives is watching TV, and so far they seem much more riveted on the miniseries with maximum importance, the great election of 2008.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: After the hardball of Thursday's politics, go for the real thing, as the White Sox play the Rays at 6 p.m. and the Red Sox angle for a win against the Angels at 9:30 p.m. on TBS.
Saturday: For a medium demographically dominated by the fairer sex, there sure are a lot of tough guys on Saturday night, including the cops and criminals on Fox's "America's Most Wanted" and "Cops," ABC's Big Ten brawl between Ohio State and Wisconsin and CBS's mixed martial arts special. Which makes it a great time to check out "Chuck," whose geek chic on his underrated NBC show contrasts with the macho men on rival networks.
Sunday: The CW outsourced its Sunday slate to independent producer MRC, which begins with "In Harm's Way," "Valentine, Inc." and "Easy Money."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
With the CW's female-focused fall lineup has performing stronger than last year's effort, the network may wish it had kept the Sunday schedule for itself. But if successful, watch for more networks to consider the same strategy, particularly on low-rated Saturday night.
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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.
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UPDATE: This story has been updates since its initial publication to reflect end-of-day numbers from Nielsen.