71.4 Million Viewers Gutted Out Election Night

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Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and David Chalian review projections on CNN's election night special coverage.
Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and David Chalian review projections on CNN's election night special coverage. Credit: CNN via YouTube

The coda to the most frenzied and fractious election cycle in recent memory played out in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, and while the TV deliveries were predictably robust, the late denouement put the kibosh on any hopes that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might deliver one last record.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the series finale of the 2016 presidential election averaged 71.4 million primetime viewers across 13 broadcast and cable networks, trailing Election Night 2008 by a scant 46,000 viewers. Barack Obama's historic victory of eight years ago also edged this year's model by the merest dermal-dental layer in the hoary old household rating metric, drawing a 40.2 versus the Clinton-Trump closeout's 40.0 rating.

The slight advantage may be chalked up to relative efficiencies, as the 2008 race was called in favor of the junior senator from Illinois at 11 p.m. EST. This year's race took a bit longer to sort out; the Associated Press didn't declare Mr. Trump the victor until 2:33 a.m., when a good deal of voters east of the Mississippi had already retired to their beds. (For the sake of comparison, in the past 40 years, the earliest declaration of an outcome was notched in 1984, when President Ronald Reagan painted 49 of the 50 states GOP red. CBS called it a night at 8:02 p.m. EST, effectively making a redundancy of the Big Three's primetime election slate.)

While a good deal of Mr. Trump's 15-minute acceptance speech bled beyond the parameters of the Nielsen programming day, the overnight ratings suggest that 67% of all TV sets in use at the time were trained on the president-elect.

The total Nielsen turnout does not include viewers who streamed the debate online or watched from a bar, restaurant, hotel or other out-of-home venue. Also not included in the final debate tally was C-Span, which is not officially measured by Nielsen.

In an election night first, the cable news networks dominated Tuesday night's ratings race, with CNN beating all comers in the crucial adults 25-to-54 demo. In primetime (8 p.m.-11 p.m. EST), CNN averaged 13.3 million viewers and a 6.7 in the news demo, giving it a draw of 8.05 million adults 25 to 54. Fox News Channel averaged 12.1 million viewers in prime, of whom 5.53 million were members of the target audience.

From 8 p.m. through 3 a.m., CNN's election coverage averaged 11.5 million viewers and a 4.9 in the demo, which means that a little more than half (51%) of those who tuned in over the course of the long programming night were in the targeted age group. Over the same timeframe, Fox News averaged 12.7 million viewers and a 4.2 among adults 25 to 54, a segment that accounted for 40% of the network's overall audience.

According to iSpot.tv analysis, the top ad categories for CNN and Fox News were movies, financial services and automotive. While there was very little overlap between the two rivals, both nets aired teasers for the upcoming sci-fi flicks "Passengers" and "Arrival."

As has been the case throughout the election cycle, MSNBC on Tuesday night finished at the back of the cable news pack. The turnout for the network's election night coverage peaked at 11 p.m. with an average draw of 6.83 million viewers and a 2.5 in the demo, which translates to a hair over 3 million adults 25 to 54.

On the broadcast side of the ledger, NBC once again put up the biggest overall numbers among the Big Four nets, averaging 11.2 million viewers and a 5.2 in the 25-54 demo in prime, besting ABC's 8.62 million viewers and 3.6 demo and CBS' 7.5 million/2.9 rating. Fox's broadcast arm brought up the rear with 2.7 million viewers and a 1.3 rating.

NBC was the most-watched presenter of the record-smashing first presidential debate on Sept. 26, delivering 18.2 million viewers, or 22% of the event's overall reach. With an average draw of 84 million viewers, the initial Trump-Clinton audience surpassed the 80.6 million viewers who tuned in for the lone debate between President Jimmy Carter and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1980.

While citizens were given an unprecedented number of alternative Election Night viewing options, much of that programming went neglected. Lifetime's two-and-a-half-hour presentation of "The View Live Election Special" averaged 433,000 viewers and scraped by with a 0.09 in the 18-to-49 demo, while Comedy Central's one-hour installment of "The Daily Show" drew 669,000 viewers and a 0.3 rating. When twin simulcasts on Spike and VH1 were tossed into the mix, Viacom's election coverage averaged 973,000 viewers and a 0.5 rating among the 18-49 set.

CBS lent out one of its late-night hosts to sibling network Showtime, but what originally had been devised as a comic coronation of the presumed frontrunner quickly devolved into a maudlin confrontation with stark reality. Clocking in at 78 minutes, "Stephen Colbert's Live Election Night Democracy's Series Finale: Who's Going to Clean Up This Sh*t?" managed to attract just 238,000 viewers, or roughly one-tenth the audience CBS delivers with its regular 11:30 p.m. show.

Lastly, on the digital front, BuzzFeed's live-streamed coverage via Twitter notched an average-minute audience of 165,000 global viewers, well shy of the 278,800 worldwide viewers the social media site has averaged over the course of its first five "Thursday Night Football" simulcasts. Among the advertisers that bought time in the BuzzFeed experiment were Amazon Studios ("The Man in the High Castle"), Activision ("Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare") and Johnnie Walker.

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