The Republican debate on Fox News Thursday night drew 24 million viewers, marking the biggest U.S. audience ever for a cable telecast other than a sports event.
The faceoff featuring Donald Trump and nine other GOP presidential hopefuls also more than doubled Fox News’ biggest audience ever, the 11.8 million who watched coverage of the U.S. presidential election in 2012, the network said Friday in an e-mailed statement, citing Nielsen data.
The size of the audience, so early in the presidential campaign, signaled the 2016 election will be a bonanza for cable news networks such as Fox and CNN. Fox News, the sole network to carry the debate, won praise from other media.
“It was riveting,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote. “It was admirable. It compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: hooray for Fox News.”
Trump’s role as the leader in early polls put the billionaire developer and former reality-show host at the center of the action.
In one of his more memorable encounters, he interrupted a question by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, over whether he made disparaging comments toward women.
He doubled down on his position against illegal immigration, said he wouldn’t necessarily support the eventual Republican nominee, and called U.S. leaders “stupid.”
His brawling style set the tone for others, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who mixed it up over government surveillance.
Past primary debates have drawn a fraction of Thursday night’s audience, CNN said. The first Republican debate of 2011 was seen by 3.2 million people, while Democrat debates in 2008 never topped 10 percent in the ratings.
Fox News moderators Chris Wallace, Kelly and Bret Baier set the pace with tough questions for the candidates.
Austan Goolsbee, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, had this to say about the moderators:
“I will give FNC this -- if they were treating the dems like this I would have said they were gratuitously busting their chops,” he wrote on Twitter.
The epic ratings for Fox News overshadowed the final “Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” as the long-time Comedy Central host stepped away after 16 years.
His last show attracted 3.5 million viewers, marking the second most-viewed program in series history, Comedy Central said.
The next Republican debates are set for Sept. 16 on CNN and Oct. 28 on CNBC.
With Fox News having the exclusive telecast, viewers who don’t have cable were forced to look elsewhere for video streams and clips. People who tried to capture a livestream on YouTube were foiled when the clips were replaced by so-called takedown notices, The Guardian reported.