About 73.1 million people watched Tuesday night’s presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on TV, an unruly contest that prompted debate organizers to rethink their ground rules.
Viewership of the debate was 13% lower than for the first presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle, when 84 million viewers tuned in to watch Mr. Trump square off against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to Nielsen.
The figures from Nielsen include people who watched the debate on TV as well as through streaming apps on internet-connected TVs, known as smart TVs. But they exclude some digital viewers, such as those who watched the debate on devices such as computers, tablets and smartphones, when they aren’t connected to smart TVs.
A spokesman for Nielsen said that connected-TV viewing can represent as much as 11% of the audience for political events such as Tuesday’s debate.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which operates the YouTube video-sharing platform, said it didn’t have specific debate-viewing numbers to share.
The 90-minutes debate, which was moderated by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, was supposed to stick to subjects including the Supreme Court, the economy and violence in American cities. The debate often veered off-topic, as Mr. Wallace pleaded with Mr. Trump to stop interrupting Mr. Biden and stick to his two-minute time limit.
Through a representative, Mr. Wallace declined a request for comment. In a memo to employees Wednesday, Fox News Media Chief Executive Suzanne Scott praised Mr. Wallace’s “professionalism, skill and fortitude,” adding that he did “everything possible to hold both candidates accountable.” Fox Corp. and Wall Street Journal parent News Corp share common ownership.
In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, Mr. Wallace called the debate “a terrible missed opportunity,” adding that he didn’t expect the exchange to “go off the tracks the way it did.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates said it would consider changing the structure of the two remaining matchups, as politicians from both parties on Wednesday said the debate a day earlier wasn’t informative or helpful to voters. The commission said the new rules it is considering would “ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.” There are two presidential debates left before the election, on Oct. 15 and Oct. 22. A vice presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 7.
The Oct. 15 debate is to be moderated by Steve Scully, a senior executive producer and political editor of C-Span Networks. Mr. Scully, a seasoned political journalist, is known for his unruffled demeanor while hosting “Washington Journal,” C-Span’s morning call-in show.
The Commission on Presidential Debates picked Mr. Scully to host the second debate, a town hall-style discussion, because of his even-tempered approach and his experience fielding questions from the audience, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“He’s unflappable,” said Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. “He’s very used to dealing with people from various points of view, which is why I think he’s an ideal pick to moderate the town hall debate.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates declined to comment beyond its statement Wednesday.
Mr. Sesno suggested that the commission take control of each candidate’s microphone and mute candidates when it isn’t their turn to speak. That would allow the moderator to focus on asking questions without the added burden of managing the candidates.
The Oct. 22 debate will be hosted by Kristen Welker, White House correspondent for NBC News and co-anchor of “Weekend Today.” Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, will moderate the vice-presidential debate.
Tuesday night’s debate was the third most-watched initial presidential debate since 1976, according to Nielsen. The second most-watched was Ronald Reagan’s 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, which drew 80.6 million viewers.
Write to Benjamin Mullin at [email protected]
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