About 55 million people watched the first presidential debate, but that audience does not crack the top 10 all-time.
Nielsen Media Research said tonight that about 52.4 million people watched Barack Obama and John McCain debate Friday night on the major broadcast and cable networks. PBS reported separately that about 2.6 million watched its coverage.
The audience was not as large as some predicted given the record viewership for the party conventions, though it included one third of households in the top 55 markets and though ABC's post-debate analysis was the top-rated prime-time program with about 8.3 million viewers and NBC's analysis ranked third with 7.1 million.
The figure "was well below the 62.5 million who watched the first Bush/Kerry debate four years ago. This may be because Friday is the traditionally the second-lowest night of the week for watching television," Nielsen said.
The record is the nearly 81 million people who watched the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan debate in October 1980.
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.