More than 55 million people watched the second and final presidential debate between President Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., according to preliminary numbers from Nielsen.
The viewership total will rise as Nielsen collects data from more networks and out-of-home viewers. But it appears the audience on Thursday is tracking to be smaller than the one for last month’s raucous duel.
That first debate notched 73.1 million viewers, making it the third-most-viewed general-election matchup since Nielsen started keeping records in 1976.
The preliminary figure for Thursday’s debate included three cable news channels — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — and the Big Three broadcast networks.
Fox News, once again, drew the largest audience of any network, with 14.7 million viewers. Both NBC and ABC — which featured coverage of the event before the 9 p.m. Eastern start time — had roughly 10 million viewers.
With what was scheduled to be the second debate called off after Mr. Trump objected to its virtual format, Thursday’s event in Nashville amounted to the president’s final chance to make his case for re-election to a mass audience.
The two candidates participated in competing televised town halls last week, events that attracted only about 28 million viewers in total, a fraction of the audience for a debate airing simultaneously on more than a dozen networks.
The relatively sedate matchup on Thursday featured a newfangled microphone-muting scheme and a reined-in Mr. Trump, who took a calmer approach after his much criticized performance against Mr. Biden last month. The moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News, earned praise for her poised and firm approach to keeping the conversation running in an orderly fashion.
The final viewership figure that Nielsen releases on Friday will include people who streamed the debate on their television screens, but not viewers who watched it solely on digital devices. There are still no widely accepted ratings measures for the full digital audience.
In the three and a half weeks since the first debate, Mr. Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, stayed several nights at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, returned to the campaign trail, and refused to attend the second debate in Miami after learning it would be conducted virtually.
Instead, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump held dueling events on separate networks to a considerably smaller combined audience than usually tunes in for a presidential debate. Mr. Biden’s town-hall-style event, which ran on ABC, had 15.1 million viewers. An audience of 13.5 million watched Mr. Trump on NBC.
Over the years, ratings for the final presidential debate have bounced around in different directions. Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton’s third and final debate drew more viewers than their second, but fewer than their first. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s third debate in 2012 was the least viewed of the cycle.
In 1984 and 1988 — when only two presidential debates were held in each election cycle — the final debates attracted more viewers.