Television ratings matter to President Donald Trump. So these numbers may sting.
In a victory that few in the TV and political arenas predicted, Joe Biden’s town hall-style forum on ABC on Thursday night drew a larger audience than Trump’s competing event on NBC, according to Nielsen.
Biden’s town-hall meeting, which aired on a single network, was seen by an average of 15.1 million viewers, compared with 13.5 million for Trump even though the president monopolized three networks — NBC, MSNBC and CNBC — simultaneously.
The town halls were vastly different television spectacles, befitting their respective protagonists. For an hour on NBC, Trump was darting and defiant as the “Today” host Savannah Guthrie pressed him to denounce QAnon and white supremacy (Trump hesitated on both) and clear up questions about his medical condition.
On ABC, Biden and moderator George Stephanopoulos engaged in a sober 90-minute policy discussion more akin to a PBS telecast. (Politico wrote that flipping back and forth between the two was like “going from Bob Ross to ‘WrestleMania’.”)
NBC had drawn scorn for scheduling its event with Trump at the same time as Biden’s previously announced ABC forum. Executives at NBC News said it was a matter of fairness, saying they wanted the same conditions offered to Biden at his NBC town hall on Oct. 5. Critics, including the MSNBC star Rachel Maddow, suggested that NBC had erred in allowing Trump to appear at the same time as Biden.
It appears that Biden did not need to worry. And the fact that the Democrat outdrew his voluble Republican rival is likely to inspire dozens of hot takes about whether, after four seasons, Americans are simply growing bored with The Trump Show.
Viewership for Biden’s event, which began at 8 p.m., rose as the night continued, surging to an average audience of 16.7 million in the final 30 minutes after Trump and NBC’s forum had gone off the air, according to Nielsen. (Biden’s viewership bested Trump even without the assist from his extra half-hour).
The numbers were a bracing outcome for the president, whose aides had been promising a decisive ratings win over his Democratic rival. “We’re going to have a much bigger audience than Joe for next Thursday,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign, told Fox News last week.
At a rally in Ocala, Fla., on Friday, Trump complained that Biden was given “easy questions” by ABC and claimed, without basis, that Guthrie was “not too popular right now.”
“If you can’t handle Savannah, you can’t handle Putin and President Xi and Kim Jong Un,” the president said dismissively, referring to the leaders of China and North Korea. “That’s small potatoes, last night.”
Meanwhile, the Biden campaign took a victory lap. “Turns out more people last night were interested in watching a leader with a clear plan,” a Biden spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, wrote on Twitter, “regardless of how many channels” Trump was on.
The Nielsen figures released on Friday included viewers who watched the town halls on television or streamed the event to their TV screens.
With Election Day drawing near, viewer interest in the campaign is on the rise. The audience for Thursday’s telecasts was significantly larger than previous forums: Biden drew 6.7 million viewers on Oct. 5 on NBC, and Trump only 3.8 million in mid-September on ABC.
Still, the viewership was magnitudes smaller than the audience that might have tuned in for a formal presidential debate — as had originally been scheduled for the evening.
Trump baffled allies and analysts when he backed out of the planned second debate — citing his frustration that safety-conscious organizers wanted a virtual format — at a moment when he is trailing in polls and seeking to persuade independents and swing-state voters to move to his camp.
His first debate with Biden, in Cleveland in late September, notched 73 million viewers. On Thursday, the overall viewership for both town halls was smaller than that by 60%.
Part of the reason Trump failed to match Biden’s ratings was a drop-off in viewers on MSNBC, whose prime time is beloved by liberals and Never Trumpers. Only 1.8 million people watched the Trump simulcast on MSNBC, below the channel’s usual average for that hour.
MSNBC’s audience is generally turned off by appearances by Trump, but its producers also did little to call attention to the event that would be preempting its usual 8 p.m. host, Chris Hayes.
Notably, MSNBC did not promote the event to viewers with an onscreen graphic, and when its 7 p.m. host, Joy Reid, signed off, she made no mention of the forum with Trump that was coming up next. When NBC held its Biden forum on Oct. 5, Reid’s lead-in show featured a promotional image of the former vice president in the corner of the screen.
It was a small but pointed sign of the tensions within NBC’s news division over its handling of the Trump event. Both Maddow and Hayes had suggested on the air Wednesday that they were not pleased with the scheduling decision.
After Trump’s forum ended on Thursday, MSNBC viewers were greeted by Maddow, the network’s top-rated personality, sitting at her anchor’s desk.
“Let me remind you what you just saw was a production of NBC News,” Maddow said, looking bemused. “We are MSNBC. We did not produce that event.”