An estimated 57.9 million viewers watched Wednesday night’s matchup of Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, the second biggest total ever for a vice-presidential debate, according to Nielsen.
The audience for the roughly 90-minute event was much larger than the one for the 2016 vice-presidential debate between Mr. Pence and Senator Tim Kaine, which drew 37 million television viewers.
The number of viewers for vice-presidential contests usually lags far behind the audience for presidential showdowns — though there have been notable exceptions. In 2008, nearly 70 million witnessed Sarah Palin’s debate-stage debut against Joseph R. Biden Jr. And 56.7 million watched the 1984 contest between George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, the first time a woman had taken the vice-presidential debate stage.
With Wednesday’s numbers in the Nielsen books, the top three most-watched vice-presidential debates have featured female candidates.
A dizzying news cycle was the backdrop for the debate on Wednesday, as cable news networks had been devoting hours of coverage to the coronavirus sweeping through the White House and President Trump’s three-night stay at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Live coverage of Mr. Trump’s brief flights aboard the Marine One helicopter to and from the hospital, as well as related panel discussions, may have elevated interest in the vice-presidential debate.
Because of the White House outbreak, plexiglass dividers were installed on the University of Utah debate stage between Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris. Susan Page, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, was the moderator as the running mates of two septuagenarian presidential candidates clashed over the Trump administration’s handling of the virus, which has killed more than 212,000 Americans.
Fox News had the most viewers of any television outlet for the debate, with more than 11 million people tuning in. ABC, the only broadcast network that devoted an hour of coverage to the event before the debate, was second highest, with roughly 9.4 million viewers. The event was carried by 18 broadcast and cable networks.
Nielsen’s count includes those who watched or streamed the debate on TV screens. People who watched solely on a digital device are not part of its tally, and there is no firm that credibly measures the full digital audience.
The presidential debate between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden last week garnered 73.1 million TV viewers, about a 13 percent decline versus the first presidential contest in 2016.
Future debates between the two candidates are up in the air. After the Commission on Presidential Debates announced on Thursday that the matchup scheduled for Oct. 15 would be conducted virtually, Mr. Trump said he would not participate.
ABC News subsequently announced that it would air a prime-time town hall with Mr. Biden on the night of the scheduled debate (with the Democratic nominee offering the caveat that he would take part in the planned Oct. 15 event if his opponent changed his mind).
What was supposed to have been the third and final debate between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden is scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville.