No 'Disaster' for Fox News as Trump-Free Debate Still Rates

The Donald's Disappearing Act Has Little Impact

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Senator Ted Cruz, center, greets Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, left, on stage next to Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon, at the Republican presidential candidate debate at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.
Senator Ted Cruz, center, greets Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, left, on stage next to Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon, at the Republican presidential candidate debate at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines. Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The ratings for Thursday night's Republican presidential debate may not have been anywhere near as robust as those generated by last August's record-setting first showdown, but they also were not the "total disaster" predicted by absentee frontrunner Donald Trump.

According to Nielsen live-plus-dame-day data, Fox News Channel's presentation of the Trump-free debate in Des Moines, Iowa, averaged 12.5 million viewers and a 2.9 rating among adults 25 to 54, which translates to 3.47 million members of the core news demo. And while that was a far cry from the 24 million viewers and 6.6 demo rating delivered by the inaugural GOP debate on Aug. 6, it still ranks as the second most-watched telecast in the 20-year history of Fox News.

With Trump out of the picture -- the candidate pulled out after FNC rebuffed his efforts to oust moderator Megyn Kelly, who he claimed was "unfair" to him during the August telecast -- the pre-caucus showcase marked the second lowest-rated GOP debate of the primary season. (Fox Business Network, which reaches about 10 million fewer homes than its more established sibling, drew 11.1 million viewers and a 2.5 in the 25-to-54 demo with its coverage of the Jan. 14 debate.)

While Trump's disappearing act may have been designed to suck all of the air out of the room, his attempt at counterprogramming would seem to have a limited impact on FNC's overall deliveries. The Donald's rally/fundraiser drew a combined 2.79 million viewers and a 0.7 adults 25-to-54 rating on CNN and MSNBC, which agreed to cover the sideshow once the candidate opted out of the main event. Whether it helped or hindered their ratings, CNN and MSNBC didn't keep their cameras trained on the stage for very long, cutting away to conversation among pundits. Chalk it up to simple viewer fatigue), but even if those targeted ratings points were added to FNC's final results, Thursday night's telecast would still only rank fourth out of seven.

On the morning of the debate, Trump's official Twitter account predicted that his absence from the dais would wreak havoc with FNC's bottom line. "The 'debate' tonight will be a total disaster," Mr. Trump told his 5.92 million followers. "Low ratings with advertisers and advertising rates dropping like a rock. I hate to see this."

Of course, TV advertising is a far less volatile enterprise than Mr. Trump imagines it to be, and Fox News is in no danger of having to offer makegoods for its four debates, which together averaged 15.3 million viewers and a 3.8 in its targeted demo, or roughly 13 times what the flagship network averaged in prime time throughout 2015.

Media buyers said that Fox is charging upwards of $250,000 for each 30-second slice of airtime it books during its debate coverage.

Mr. Trump on Friday told supporters in New Hampshire that sitting out the debate was the right call. "Actually, I'm glad I wasn't there," he said, before going on to marvel at how extensively Sen. Ted Cruz was "pummeled" in Iowa.

Fox has one final primary debate scheduled for March. Whether Trump will participate remains to be seen, but Ms. Kelly is scheduled to moderate the event, along with her colleagues Chris Wallace and Brett Baier.

Chart by Chen Wu
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