Joe Biden outdrew US President Donald Trump in the broadcast-only ratings for their competing town-hall events Thursday, but the incumbent might well pull ahead when cable numbers come in later Friday.
The Democratic challenger attracted 12.2 million viewers on ABC, according to early Nielsen data. Trump drew 10.4 million viewers on NBC. The numbers will be subject to adjustments later Friday that could dramatically increase NBC’s total, including the addition of audiences from cable channels operated by parent Comcast Corp.
The unusual dueling TV events happened after Trump declined to participate in a virtual debate scheduled for the same date in Miami. The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates recommended the virtual matchup after Trump tested positive for Covid-19. ABC, owned by Walt Disney Co., scheduled Democrat Biden to appear alone, while NBC made a similar offer to Trump.
NBC came under fire from media critics and some of its own employees for scheduling its competing event. More than 100 actors and producers sent a letter to network management calling it a “disservice.”
But the network’s moderator, Savannah Guthrie, won praise for asking tough questions and scrutinizing his answers. That may have taken some heat off NBC for its scheduling decision, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
After Trump defended retweeting a conspiracy theory about Biden orchestrating the killing of Navy SEALs to cover up the “fake” death of Osama Bin Laden, she said, “You’re the president. You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”
At a rally Thursday, Trump criticized NBC and parent Comcast, but said he decided to participate in the town hall anyway because it would “be a free hour of television.”
The total audience on the two networks will likely far short the 73.1 million viewers who tuned in to last month’s debate between Trump and Biden. The vice-presidential debate between incumbent Mike Pence and challenger Kamala Harris got 57.9 million viewers, the strongest showing in a dozen years.
Town halls have proven to be modest audience draws. The event with Biden earlier this month drew 6.7 million viewers to NBC, MSNBC and CNBC. Last month, ABC held a town hall with Trump that attracted about 4 million viewers, and a CNN broadcast with Biden drew 3.3 million viewers.
Thursday’s candidate conversations began at 8 p.m. New York time, with Trump on for an hour and Biden for about 90 minutes. The president’s audience total will likely rise later in the day when results from NBC-owned cable networks come out. Comcast aired the Trump event simultaneously on its MSNBC and CNBC channels.
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