Late Night Hosts React to Presidential Debate as Ratings Soar

by Cate Lecuyer  |  09.27.2016

Hyped up by the media like a prize fight—as Seth Meyers put it on A Closer Look —the first presidential debate ratings delivered with a potentially record-breaking punch.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump went head to head on issues such as climate change and support for the Iraq war, as fact-checkers’ fingers flew across keyboards, and late-night hosts honed in on who had the sniffles, and a better temperament.

While data is still coming in, preliminary numbers for overnight ratings show around 80.9 million viewers tuned in to watch the candidates—surpassing the 1980 tally of 80 million for the debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan—all before accounting for time zone adjustments and streaming traffic, which was free across multiple outlets including PBS, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Held Monday at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., many late-night hosts also aired their shows live to capitalize on the debate.

Both Stephen Colbert on Late Night and Trevor Noah on The Daily Show were quick to point out the first lie of the evening—when Clinton told Trump it was good to be there with him.

Meanwhile, The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper visited with The Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, who compared following up on Clinton’s comments to “playing chess,” and Trump’s comments to “playing checkers … with someone who’s not very good at it … it’s pretty boring. His facts are so easily disproven, there’s no joy in the hunt.”

Meyers gave a comprehensive recap of the overall debate, highlighting Trump advisors’ concerns about his “ability to stand still,” and his lack of preparation as Clinton prepared for “two Trumps,” and honing in on falsehoods.

As Trump denied Clinton’s remarks that he considered climate change “a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government” Meyers and others pulled up a 2012 tweet where he said just that.

Meanwhile, Colbert interviewed “Ghost Abraham Lincoln” about his views on modern debates, spoke with an undecided voter (Rob Lowe) who used a trusty Magic 8-Ball, and addressed the expectations for each candidates, saying Clinton had to be “charming but not effective” and “not coughing,” while Trump had to “not commit murder … on camera.”

Speaking of health, Trump’s sniffling was trending on Twitter as, following his questioning of Clinton’s medical records after a bout of pneumonia, viewers called out Trump for possibly having a cold … or in some cases snorting cocaine …

Simulcast on more than 10 networks and a wide range of streaming sites, early data from Nielsen’s Fast Affiliate ratings shows coverage by the Big Four broadcast networks drew around 45.3 million viewers—up 22 percent from the 2012 presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

For comparison’s sake, the 31.2 overnight ratings for the Big Four are slightly below CBS’s 49 rating for the 2016 Super Bowl, and more than double last week’s Sunday Night Football score of 13.7.

Moderated by NBC’s Lester Holt, the network led in broadcasting with around 16 million viewers, followed by ABC with about 12.5 million, CBS with 11 million, Fox with 5.3 million, Univision with 2.2 million and Telemundo with 1.8 million.

On the cable front, Fox led with 11.4 million viewers, followed by CNN with 9.8 million and MSNBC with 4.9 million.

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READ MORE: Hollywood Reporter, FastCoCreate

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