The second presidential debate between Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton ran hot with personal attacks on Sunday night — and with viewers tuning into the contretemps.
Televised across 11 networks, the Oct. 9 Trump-Clinton confrontation averaged an estimated audience of 66.5 million viewers from 9 to 10:30 p.m. ET, according to live + same-day day data from Nielsen Holdings. The audience, which did not have the benefit of an NBC (US) presentation as the Comcast Corp.-owned network televised an NFL game instead, ranked 21% below that of the first Clinton-Trump debate last month.
Moderated by ABC (US)'s Martha Raddatz and CNN (US)'s Anderson Cooper, the Oct. 9 confrontation at Washington University in St. Louis was staged as a town hall meeting that devolved into character aspersions and tawdry allegations.
The 66.5 million average audience for the Oct. 9 debate edged past the 65.6 million who watched the second debate between President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Oct. 16, 2012 across a dozen networks' audiences and grew more than 5% from the 63.2 million watchers for Obama and John McCain across 13 networks on Oct. 7, 2008.
The most-watched second presidential battle remains the Oct. 15, 1992, forum featuring then Republican president George H.W. Bush, Democratic challenger Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot that tallied 69.9 million viewers on ABC, NBC, CBS (US) and CNN.
The networks' collective Oct. 9 delivery also fell short of debate audiences in 1988 and 1984 that drew 67.3 million viewers apiece.
It seems likely that if NBC had presented Clinton-Trump coverage, the total for the Oct. 9 town hall, which in addition to questions from the moderators featured select queries from audience members and online entrants, would have registered at least as the most-watched second debate. The "Sunday Night Football" match-up between flagship franchises the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants garnered some 15.0 million viewers, according to Nielsen overnight data. NBC, which ran promos asking viewers to watch the NFL game and stream the debate on NBCNews.com, scored the largest audience for the first Trump-Clinton debate with more than 18 million watchers.
The audience for the second Clinton-Trump battle lagged the record 84.0 million who watched their first debate across 13 networks last month by 21%. Their Sept. 26 meeting at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. supplanted the 80.6 million viewers who saw Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter square off on Oct. 28, 1980, as the most-watched debate in U.S. history.
The Oct. 9 audience dwarfed the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate between Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine from Longwood University in Farmville, Va., that tallied 37.2 million watchers across nine networks.
Historically, second presidential debates lag their predecessors in terms of audience intrigue. However, the conflagration this past weekend surrounding the release of a taped 2005 "Access Hollywood" conversation between Trump and Billy Bush — in which the GOP nominee made a number of lewd, sexual comments and boasts about groping women because of his celebrity — was expected to entice viewers to the proceedings.
Trump's decade-old remarks drew the rebuke of some Republican members of Congress, with some calling for him to withdraw his candidacy. Although he apologized during the debate, Trump looked to dismiss the comments as "locker-room talk." Trump assailed the infidelities of former President Bill Clinton and said that Hillary Clinton had abided her husband's transgressions.
The figures for the debates exclude those who watched online, via social media outlets, or such out-of-home venues as bars, restaurants, community centers and dormitories.
The third and final debate between Trump and Clinton is scheduled for Oct. 19 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.