Joe Biden’s town hall on ABC averaged 13.9 million viewers on Thursday night, easily surpassing the Nielsen ratings for President Trump’s town hall on NBC. That alone was a result virtually no one in the TV business expected. And that’s not even the most surprising part.
The Trump town hall was simulcast by two of NBC’s cable channels, MSNBC and CNBC, but even when those channels are included in the total, Biden — on only one network — still prevailed.
The Trump town hall averaged 10.6 million viewers on the NBC broadcast network. On MSNBC, Trump reached 1.74 million viewers, and on CNBC, about 671,000 viewers. So Trump’s gross audience across the three channels was 13 million, about one million fewer than Biden’s audience on ABC alone.
Staffers at ABC News privately admitted to their surprise when the preliminary ratings came in on Friday.
The Nielsen ratings only measure viewership on TV sets. Both town halls were also live-streamed to phones, computers and other devices.
In the run-up to Thursday night, the Biden campaign embraced the popular ratings narrative and predicted that Trump would outrate Biden. Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said “we’re gonna have a much bigger audience than Joe.”
Trump has been a Nielsen connoisseur for decades. While hosting “The Apprentice” on NBC, he paid close attention to the performance of his show and routinely exaggerated its success. He has continued to fixate on TV ratings during his years in the White House and has frequently congratulated Fox News for its ratings victories.
But when the TV ratings have disappointed him, he has also shifted to other metrics; when Biden had a bigger TV audience for his convention, Trump complained that “Online Streaming Numbers” weren’t being counted in the totals.
There is no industry standard to measure all the various ways the town halls were streamed, both live and on-demand. In any event, that would be like trying to combine apples and oranges. In the apples to apples match-up between the two candidates, Biden had the better night.
While surprising to many media and political observers, Biden’s ratings strength has been palpable for months.
When Trump participated in a town hall on ABC last month, the event averaged 3.8 million viewers.
When Biden held a town hall on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC last week, it averaged 6.7 million viewers.