Thursday's vice presidential debate was viewed by 69.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, crushing the old VP debate record of 56.9 million, and topping the 52.4 million who tuned in to Barack Obama and John McCain's debate Sept. 26 and the 43.6 million who tuned in to John Edwards and Dick Cheney in 2004.
The 69.9 million came from viewership across 11 networks, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, BBC America, CNBC, CNN, FOX News Channel, and MSNBC, Telefutura, and Telemundo.
The old VP record had been held by the debate between the first woman on a major party ticket, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, and Vice President George H. W. Bush in 1984. The 80.6 million viewers that tuned into the Carter/Reagan square-off in 1980 remains the record for debates.
Last night's debate between Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden averaged a 45 rating in Nielsen's 56 metered markets, blowing away the top of the ticket, at least in terms of TV following.
Baltimore had the biggest audience, with a 59.1 household rating. Los Angeles had the lowest at 34.4, but the Dodgers were playing at the time (the debate aired at 6 p.m.-7:30 Pacific time), which could account for the depressed viewership.
Nielsen does not have a viewership equivalent for that number, but will release a viewer number based on national ratings later today.
But those early returns put the VP debate well ahead of the 31.6 overnight rating for the first presidential debate Sept. 26 between Barack Obama and John McCain. That had been expected from many quarters given the spotlight put on Palin after her interview with Katie Couric on CBS raised some doubts about how prepared she was to take on Senate veteran Joe Biden.
Nielsen pointed out that if the numbers hold up nationally, it could be one of the most-watched debates ever. The record for televised debate audiences is 80.6 million for the Carter/Reagan square-off in 1980.
The overnight rating represents the combined household rating for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, CNN, Telemundo, TeleFutura, BBC America, Fox News, MSNBC, and C-SPAN in 55 TV markets. A rating point in this context is roughly equal to 1% of the TV households in a given market.
So, put another way, 45% of all the TV households in each market were tuned to the debate.
Nielsen will not release a combined viewership total until later today, but PBS has already said it had 900,000 more viewers than it did for the presidential debate. The current viewership leader among VP debates also featured the first woman on one of the two major party tickets, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro taking on Vice President George H. W. Bush in 1984, which drew 56.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
PBS separately said it drew almost a million more viewers to its coverage of the Sarah Palin/Joe Biden vice presidential debate than it did for its coverage of the first presidential debate last week.
That is according to Nielsen overnight numbers that showed 3.5 million viewers tuned in on average to PBS' debate and post-debate coverage between 9 and 11 p.m. That is compared to 2.6 million who tuned in Sept. 26 for the first presidential debate between Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
That is also up from the 3.2 million viewers that tuned in to the 2004 vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards on PBS, whose Gwen Ifill moderated the debate.
The PBS viewing figures are based on 47 Nielsen overnight markets.