NEW YORK -- Expectations are high for Thursday night's Republican primary debate -- not only for the 10 candidates taking the stage in Cleveland, but also for Fox News, the network that will be airing the whole thing.
A Washington Post profile this week of “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, one of three moderators of Thursday's debate, notes that the two-hour program "could draw the highest ratings in cable news history." And NBC’s Chuck Todd threw out some very big predictions for the primetime event during an appearance Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe."
“We may see 15 million tune in for this debate," Todd said, "probably the most that has ever tuned in for a primary debate, maybe the largest cable television audience for a live news event ever.”
A viewership like that would be almost twice the number of people who watched the highest-rated Republican debate during the last presidential election cycle, a 2011 ABC News broadcast that drew 7.6 million viewers, according to numbers provided by Nielsen.
Fifteen million viewers would also be nearly five times the audience for the first Republican debate of the 2012 cycle. That debate, hosted by Fox News in May 2011, drew just 3.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Fox News, as the top cable news network, typically pulls bigger primetime numbers on an average night. Its highest-rated Republican 2012 debate drew 6.7 million viewers.
There are several factors contributing to the heightened levels of anticipation and hype around Thursday’s debate. Fox News’ first debate in 2011 included just five participants, three of whom would be out of the race before the Iowa caucus. This time, 17 candidates will appear onstage in all, with seven taking part in a separate debate at 5 p.m. EST and the remaining 10 -- chosen by Fox News for their high performance in national polls -- taking the stage at 9 p.m.
With an unprecedented number of presidential hopefuls, Fox News' debate criteria has became a major story unto itself in recent months, even shaping campaign strategy. Candidates on the bubble of the primetime debate flocked to TV studios in hopes of building name recognition and bumping up their poll numbers so they'd be counted among Fox News' top 10.
And then there’s the media’s obsession with real estate developer Donald Trump, who has shot to the top of national polls despite multiple controversies -- or, perhaps, because of them. Trump's colorfulness and unpredictability, and the question of how the other candidates will react to him, will surely be a major draw for viewers, including ones who don't ordinarily watch debates.
“I don’t think anybody knows -- maybe he doesn’t know -- what you’re going to get from Donald Trump,” Wallace told The New York Times this week. “What makes it such compelling television is that sense of, at the very least, uncertainty, and at the very most, danger.”
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump looked at the Trump factor in Thursday’s debate. If you take all 6.8 million viewers who tuned in to last season’s premiere of “Celebrity Apprentice," and added them to the audience of the most-watched primary debate in history -- that would be the 10.7 million people who saw the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton grudge match in April 2008 -- you'd get a total of 17.5 million people.
That’ll be a hard number to reach. But even 15 million would eclipse cable news ratings for the previous two election nights.
CNN averaged 12.3 million total viewers in primetime during election night 2008, its best numbers in nearly three decades on the air. In 2012, Fox News led the cable pack on election night with 11.5 million viewers in primetime.
The first presidential debate in 2012 between Obama and Mitt Romney drew 67.2 million viewers across 11 channels, according to Nielsen. ABC had the biggest audience among broadcast and cable networks that night, with 11.3 million viewers.