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First McCain-Obama debate can't compete with Carter-Reagan showdown

September 29, 2008 |  4:13 pm

Despite all the build-up, the first match-up between White House contenders John McCain and Barack Obama did not end up breaking viewership records for a presidential debate.

In fact, Friday’s night forum at the University of Mississippi drew 52.4 million viewers –- fewer than the 62.5 million who tuned in four years ago to watch the first debate between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The record for a presidential debate audience was set in 1980, when 80.6 million people watched President Carter and Ronald Reagan verbally tussle.

Will more viewers tune in for the upcoming debates as Election Day nears? In both 2000 and 2004, the first debates of the general election drew bigger audiences than those that followed. But the fact that the rest of the forums this year do not fall on Fridays will probably help boost ratings. (The vice presidential debate is Thursday, while Obama and McCain go head-to-head again on Oct. 7 and Oct. 15.)

Friday's debate was carried live by every broadcast network except The CW and a host of cable channels. ABC got the most viewers for its post-debate analysis -- 8.27 million, compared to NBC's 7.12 million and CBS' 6.14 million.

-- Matea Gold

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