Viewers like to watch a good scrap. Maybe that’s why the audience for Tuesday’s hard-fought vice presidential debate, between sitting veep Dick Cheney and challenger John Edwards, was up 34 percent from the more genteel sit-down four years ago between Cheney and Joe Lieberman. According to Nielsen, a total of 43.6 million viewers watched the contest on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC, up from the 29.1 million who watched the 2000 debate. About a fourth of debate viewers, 11.5 million, watched NBC’s coverage. More than half of those who watched the debate on cable watched it on Fox News (7.8 million).
As with last week’s presidential debate, it was the most-watched face-off of its kind since the 1992 three-way debate among vice presidential candidates Al Gore, Dan Quayle, and James Stockdale, which drew 51.2 million viewers. (Similarly, last Thursday’s George W. Bush-John Kerry debate drew 62.5 million viewers, the most since the 69.9 million who watched George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot debate in 1992.) The numbers were especially good considering that the debate aired opposite the first game of the New York Yankees-Minnesota Twins playoff series on the Fox broadcast network. The game averaged just 8.5 million fans; clearly, viewers preferred to watch Cheney and Edwards pitch beanballs at each other.