Media Politics and civics

Was the first 2016 presidential debate really the “most watched ever”?

The first presidential debate of 2016 with 84 million network TV viewers edges out the 1980 debate with its 81 million. But is this the right comparison?

presidential debates


In nominal terms, the first presidential debate of 2016 with 84 million network TV viewers edges out the 1980 debate with its 81 million viewers. There are far more ways to watch today than 36 years ago, however. That unknown (but probably sizable) audience of cord cutters definitely makes this the “most watched” presidential debate in absolute terms.

But “most watched” as a label is meaningless.

More people live here today — about 322.69 million — than lived here in 1980 — 227.22 million. So, yeah, there should be more people watching!

In economics, we have the concept of nominal dollars (what you paid for your most recent coffee or tea) that we compare with real or adjusted dollars (what that beverage cost 10 years ago, when adjusted for inflation). The comparison shows us if things are getting more expensive or cheaper, if that raise puts us ahead or keeps us even.

Reporters, editors and headline writers routinely ignore missing monetary context when they focus on nominal dollars. The folks in the entertainment section — especially those writing about Hollywood — are among the worst offenders.

With inflation-adjusted dollars in mind, I’ve used total population as a proxy to “deflate” our viewership data in this chart.* But as you can see from the chart, since Clinton was re-elected in 1996 a growing population has not translated to viewership growth.

To truly be the “most watched debate” since 1980, this year’s debate would need more than 116 million viewers. Here’s how I calculated that estimate:

Viewership 1980     Viewership 2016
_______________  = _______________ 
Population 1980     Population 2016     

In 1960, the year of the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon, there were 180 million Americans. This year’s debate would need to top 102 million for equivalence with 1960 viewership.

Then there’s access.

For the Kennedy-Nixon debates, we had three networks. Only 5.7 million households had a television.

For the Carter-Reagan debates in 1980, we had three networks, PBS and limited cable. And 19.9 million households had a TV.

For the Clinton-Trump debates, we have networks, PBS, C-SPAN and expanded cable plus streaming on computers large and small. An estimated 26.5 million households have TVs and an unknown number have one or more traditional computers, a tablet computer and/or a smartphone — all capable of receiving the “television” signal from the debate.

Let’s use TV households as our “deflation tool” for the debate data:

Base year 1960: 5.7 million TV households, 61 million watching

  • 1980: 19.9 million TV households – equivalent, 213 million watching
  • 2016: 26.5 million TV households – equivalent, 283 million watching


Still think 2016 is the “most watched debate in history”? And does the label matter?


As an educator and political junkie, I’m glad people are paying attention to the election. I’m sad about how news media are framing our attention. Why does everything have to be measured, poked and prodded with the goal of “best of show” label?


* Total population is admittedly a gross tool; if you can offer something more refined, shout, please.
Featured image source: Kennedy/Nixon image from Purdue University

Cross-posted to Medium and TheModerate Voice


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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