It’s (almost) official: Monday’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was the most watched debate in U.S. history, according to early figures released by Nielsen on Tuesday afternoon. Via the New York Times:
Preliminary figures from 12 national networks showed an average viewership of 83.8 million, ahead of the 80.6 million that tuned in to the 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the previous record-holder. The estimated size of the audience is expected to be revised by Tuesday evening, when Nielsen announces a more definitive count.
Even with a looming revision, the Clinton-Trump clash appears a safe bet to top the first and only time Carter and Reagan squared off on stage 36 years ago. That televised contest was the only other debate in U.S. history to crack the 70 million mark in Neilson’s ratings. The next most-watched debate was the second three-man battle between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot in 1992, which had an estimated 69.9 million viewers.* Monday’s viewership, meanwhile, far surpassed the 67.2 million who were watching when President Obama turned in a dud in his first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012.
Obviously, the Clinton-Trump show had the considerable advantage that there are more Americans alive now to watch debates than were around in years past. Still, the 83.8 million figure is staggering. It represents roughly a quarter of the current U.S. population. For comparison, meanwhile, based on the early estimates, more people watched Trump become unglued Monday night than watched: Johnny Carson’s final turn as host of the Tonight Show (50 million); the season finales of Friends (66 million), Seinfeld (76 million), and The Fugitive (78 million); and any of the first 15 Super Bowls, which ranged from 39.1 million for Super Bowl II to 78.9 million for Super Bowl XII.
Trump, however, can console himself knowing that Monday’s viewership didn’t approach the 115 million people who watched the Seattle Seahawks throw away Super Bowl XLIX in the closing moments of the game, or the 105 million who watched the finale of M.A.S.H.
*Correction, Sept. 28, 2016: An earlier version of this post misstated the year of the Clinton-Bush-Perot debate. It took place in 1992, not 1997.