Audience for debates may be record Early tallies top figures for 1976

October 21, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

It appears that more people watched the three presidential debates this year than ever before. But no single debate this year came within 10 million viewers of the Oct. 28, 1980, showdown between then-President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. And the overall level of viewership this year looks to be only an eyelash more than that of the 1976 debates between President Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter.

Those are the preliminary findings, according to A. C. Nielsen's overnight and national audience measurements of the debates.

While national results are in for the Oct. 13 vice-presidential debate and the Oct. 11 and Oct. 15 presidential debate, only overnight ratings from 49 percent of the country are available for Monday's final debate among President Bush, Ross Perot and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Overnight ratings cover only 49 percent of TV homes in the country. A full survey of Monday's debate viewership will not be available until the end of the week.

But based on projections of Monday's debate, it looks as if the three presidential debates this year were seen by about 197 million viewers vs. 196.3 million viewers for the three debates in 1976 between Mr. Ford and Mr. Carter.

Such projections are anything but scientific, however, and it could turn out that when the final counting is done the Ford-Carter debate could win by an eyelash.

What can be said today with certainty is that the Oct. 15 debate from Richmond, Va., -- which featured Carole Simpson, of ABC News, as the lone questioner -- was the most watched of the three this year. It was seen in 43.1 million homes by 69.9 million people.

The vice-presidential debate on Oct. 13 was the least watched with 33.4 million homes and 51.2 million people tuned in.

The first debate on Oct. 11 was seen in 35.7 million homes by 62.4 million people. While that was well below audience predictions of 70 million to 80 million viewers, the numbers were low in part because a baseball playoff game on CBS went into extra innings and the network did not carry the debate.

The overnight ratings show Monday's debate was seen in 18.6 million homes in the 49 percent of homes covered by Nielsen meters. Projections for the full national figure are that Monday's debate was seen in about 38 million homes, making it the second highest-rated of the debates this year.

By comparison, the Oct. 28, 1980, debate between Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan -- the most watched debate since 1960 when Nielsen took its first audience survey of a presidential debate -- was viewed in 45.8 million homes by 80.6 million people.

As for 1988, of the two debates between Mr. Bush and Michael Dukakis, the most watched was seen in 33.3 million households by 55.6 million viewers. That would put the interest level for those debates on a par with that for the vice-presidential debates this year.

The highest rated debate was the Oct. 13, 1960, debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It scored a 61 rating, meaning 61 percent of all homes with TVs were tuned to the debate. But there were fewer TV households then, and that translated to only 28.8 million households.

Ratings for Baltimore are not available, because Baltimore is not yet a metered market. But it will gain that status on Oct. 28.

While all the networks insist in promotional campaigns that their news operation is the one viewers turn to during major national news events, ABC News was clearly the network most viewers chose to watch the debates on.

Of all the other choices -- CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox and C-SPAN -- it appears that one-fifth to one-fourth of all people watching the debates and post-debate analysis were watching ABC coverage anchored by Peter Jennings.

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