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Presidential Debate Viewership Signals Changing Media Consumption Habits


Last night's debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton broke the TV ratings record for presidential debates. According to Nielsen, about 84 million Americans watched the debate. And that doesn't include the people who streamed it online. I spoke with NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik earlier, and I asked him, when was the previous record for a presidential debate?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well you've got to go all the way back to October 1980. President Jimmy Carter had consented to, essentially, what worked out to be a single debate with Ronald Reagan. And that seemingly shattered, you know, all interest.

You know, debates were not always guaranteed back then. It's become part of the landscape now and expectation. But I think it's also worth remembering.

You know, I looked up U.S. Census data. The population of the United States was a little over 220 million. Now it's almost exactly 100 million more people. So seemingly, at least, the TV numbers - not so astonishing that there might be growth in that.

SIEGEL: TV isn't the only way you can watch a debate these days. A lot of people watch the debate online. What do you know about those numbers?

FOLKENFLIK: Well - and that's where I think things get interesting. You know, I looked at a number of outlets and their feeds on Facebook. If you look at the live streams of seven different major outlets, including places like Al Jazeera, ABC News, NowThisNews, The New York Times, Univision, Fox, a couple others, that was in excess of 35 million views.

They're not counted identically to a television viewer. But 35 million people looked, at least, at part of those live streams of the debates that way. Similarly, about 5 million people looked at the live streams or streams available on YouTube.

And that's not including this - individual websites, as well. For example, in excess of 2.4 million people - an estimated - watched it on cnn.com through their free feed. So there are a lot of different ways people are approaching this.

SIEGEL: There could've been the 100 million that people talked about in advance of the debates.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, all told, it's hard to discount that because you don't know the overlap. But seemingly, there's a real interest here.

SIEGEL: Very few media events get as much attention as this one does. What have you learned from - about the way that people actually watch the debate?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think one of the things to take from this is - you know, they say, these debates - after Labor Day, these are the moments where people all come together. And it's almost like a throwback to the old days when there were three networks. Everybody had to watch together.

And yet, even as we're coming together, we're doing it in a much more fragmented way. So many more television outlets, so many more different online outlets - different ways to consume. And we do it with all this different ideological and stylistic bunting. So we're talking about the same thing, perhaps. But we're doing it, often, in very different ways.

SIEGEL: One other quick point - if you know. Since people have described the first half hour of the debate as having gone differently than the last hour of it, do we know how many people hung in there for 90 minutes? Or is that a final number yet to be determined?

FOLKENFLIK: I think as of this moment - early evening - the day after, they're still crunching through a lot of things. We're still looking for better numbers to come through online and on the air. But I will say that, you know, people are interested. There's a higher level of interest in these debates, particularly because of, you know, the free radical that is Donald Trump in this chemical element.

SIEGEL: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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