CNN Biden-Trump debate draws 51.3 million TV viewers, a major drop from 2020

President Joe Biden, right, speaking during a presidential debate with Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Former President Donald Trump debates President Biden in Atlanta. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

The highly anticipated first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign averaged 51.3 million television viewers Thursday, far below the viewership the first time President Biden and former President Trump faced off in 2020.

The summer date for the event staged by CNN in Atlanta was likely a main factor in the Nielsen figure being significantly lower than the 73 million viewers who watched in late September 2020, when presidential debates are traditionally held.

Viewers also may be weary of the candidates, who both have low favorability ratings with the public.

The data does not include online viewing, which was likely substantial as the debate was available across numerous streaming platforms. CNN said its own streaming properties peaked at 2.3 million simultaneous live views at 9:47 p.m. Eastern.

The event itself was often a brutal viewing experience as Biden appeared unfocused and lost his train of thought at times. The audience also was subjected to a multitude of misstatements from Trump about his economic record, abortion, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and other topics.

The showdown was produced by CNN and moderated by its anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, the first time a single network had complete editorial control over a general election presidential debate. A video feed of the proceedings was provided to other broadcast and cable outlets to simulcast.

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CNN took some fire on social media and in post-debate critiques over its decision not to fact-check the candidates in real time, which was largely seen as an advantage to Trump and his ability to flood the zone with falsehoods.

The debate was held in a studio without an audience or candidate entourages, creating a sterile atmosphere over 90 minutes.

But Biden's stunningly lackluster performance — considered the worst since President Reagan struggled through his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984 — was the story of the night. Even in the Democrat-friendly confines of MSNBC, the dominant theme during post-debate analyses was whether the party will consider replacing the 81-year-old Biden on the ticket.

CNN's ability to put its brand name on the event helped on the ratings front. The network averaged 9.53 million viewers to itself — a 5% improvement over its audience for the first 2020 debate.

Fox News, the ratings leader in cable news, finished in second place on the night with 9.3 million viewers. Even though Fox News cooperated on CNN's terms for carrying the simulcast and promoted it heavily, its conservative commentators frequently told viewers that Tapper and Bash were biased against Trump and that he would not get a fair shake. They changed their tune after the event.

ABC was the most-watched broadcast network for the event with 9.21 million viewers, followed by NBC (5.17 million), CBS (4.8 million), MSNBC (4.1 million), the Fox broadcast network (3.48 million), Telemundo (829,000), Univision (704,000), Fox Business Network (372,000) and HLN (251,000).

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.