Politics & Government

Friday's debate audience on TV was smallest ever

The final Nielsen data is in, and Friday's presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain didn't bring in quite as many viewers as it appeared from preliminary results.

About 52.4 million viewers (about 4.6 million fewer than the overnight numbers suggested) watched on the four big broadcast networks, the two big Spanish nets, the three cable news channels, CNBC and BBC America.

That's well below the 62.5 million who watched the first debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush in 2004, and not even close to the 80.6 million who watched Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan square off on Oct. 28, 1980.

And considered another way -- by the percentage of American households who tuned in -- McCain and Obama were an absolute flop compared to previous presidential debates.

Nielsen says 31.6 percent of U.S. homes were watching the debate. That's only about half as many as the 61 percent who tuned into the third Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960.

If you compare just the first debates of the nine other election years in which the presidential candidates have squared off, McCain and Obama are tied for last with Bob Dole and Bill Clinton in 1996.