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Biden-Palin debate smashes ratings records

October 3, 2008 |  3:25 pm

It’s official: Thursday’s debate between Sen. Joe Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was must-see TV.

Just shy of 70 million people tuned in for the 90-minute forum, 34% more than watched last week’s showdown between White House hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama. The figures from Nielsen Media Research don’t include viewership on C-SPAN or PBS, which estimated that it had 3.5 million viewers.

It was by far the most-watched vice presidential debate since Nielsen began tracking audiences in 1960. The previous record was set in 1984, when George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro squared off before 56.7 million people.

The Biden-Palin debate even rivaled the most-watched presidential debates. Its viewership tied that of the 1992 forum between Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, the second-highest rated in history. (The most-watched was in 1980, when 80.6 million people watched Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan face off.)

More than a dozen networks aired the debate, but the largest share of the audience tuned in to ABC, which drew 13.13 million viewers. That’s the second debate win in a week for the network, which also had the biggest viewership during last week’s presidential forum. NBC and CBS also got big ratings, attracting 12.82 million and 11.1 million viewers, respectively. Fox followed the other broadcast networks with 4.5 million.

Viewership for the only debate between the two vice presidential candidates set records on cable news. Fox News drew 11.1 million viewers with its coverage, the highest-rated telecast in the history of the network. (The last record was set in March 2003, when 9.7 million people tuned in to Fox News to watch President Bush’s address about the war in Iraq.) CNN garnered 10.7 million viewers, including more than 3 million ages 18 to 34 -- the biggest tune-in for that age group in cable news history. MSNBC had 4.4 million.

-- Matea Gold