About 66.5 million people tuned in to one or more of the 11 networks that aired the Oct. 9 presidential debate, according to Nielsen. Those numbers don’t include the millions who watched live on YouTube or those who caught Facebook Live streams carried by the likes of Fox and CNN.
As healthy as the overall viewing numbers are, they don’t include sources that have grown dramatically since previous election cycles: illegal pirate sites. One estimate from antipiracy company VFT Solutions had as many as 10 million viewers watching live via illegal streams. VFT’s technology tracks online streams in real time. It tracked more than 400 live streams of the debate. CEO Wayne Lonstein has an explanation for why so many people watched an illegal stream of something that was broadcast for free. “It’s clearly an indicator that many people, especially younger viewers, find it easier to access these [illegal] streams than the [legitimate] broadcasts,” he said.
While it’s illegal to retransmit live broadcasts like the debate without permission, it’s not illegal to view the streams themselves, leaving viewers—many of whom are cord-cutters or cord-nevers—free to watch from any source they want. And the number from the second debate almost mirrored the first: from the 400-plus live streams VFT sampled from the Sept. 26 debate, roughly 11 million people combined viewed the streams that were broadcast illegally, Lonstein said.
“[Pirated] streams spread virally in a way never before witnessed,” Lonstein wrote in a recent report on illegal streaming, which identified more than 650 different types of content that is streamed illegally. “They rely upon social media followers to allow them to grow from one viewer to millions in less than 60 seconds. Even more astounding, this growth knows no geographic boundary.”
For example, during the second presidential debate, VFT identified approximately 50 live streams coming from overseas.