Republican Debate on Fox News Doesn’t Need Trump to Notch Top Ratings

The Republicans don’t need Donald Trump to get people to pay attention to their causes.

Approximately 12.8 million viewers tuned in Wednesday night to see a telecast of the first Republican primary debate in the race for the 2024 presidential election, according to data from Nielsen, with 11.1 million viewers watching the event on Fox News Channel and another 1.7 million viewing it on sister outlet Fox Business Network. Eight candidates took part.

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The attention came even though Trump, the former president who has a commanding lead in Republican polls, decided to take part in a pre-taped and meandering interview with former Fox News opinion host Tucker Carlson that was streamed on X, the social-media venue once known as Twitter.

To be sure, the TV figures represent a decline in attention from the 24 million viewers –still a record — who tuned in to Fox News in 2016 for the first Republican featuring Trump. And the figures don’t match the 18.1 million wo watched an early-cycle Democratic debate in June 2019. But Wednesday’s combined number beat everything else on TV last night, and is the most-watched non-sports cable telecast of the year.

The results suggest that TV news may well have some traction left with audiences, even as more viewers migrate to streaming, on-demand video. Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN are collectively expected to see an 8.4% uptick in ad revenue in 2024, according to projections from Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. Combined, the three cable-news outlets are seen winning nearly $2.23 billion in advertising in 2024, compared with nearly $2.06 billion by the end of this year. All three are projected to see ad dollars grow year over year, according to Kagan, with Fox capturing almost $992.4 million; MSNBC $660.1 million; and CNN nearly $576.2 million.

Some moments from Wednesday’s event went viral, including remarks from entrepreneur Vivek Ramawamy; put-downs of him by former vice president Mike Pence; and jabs by former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie, Tim Scott, Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum also participated.

Moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum left Trump to the side for most of the evening, preferring to get the candidates’ takes on the policies of President Biden; the abortion issue; and, for a brief moment, climate change. Baier and MacCallum raised eyebrows by launching the debate with a question tied to the recent song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a conservative anthem that has risen up the chartes.

Despite the interest in the event, Fox News was spotted selling some of the commercials in the limited-interruption telecast to some direct-response advertisers and advocacy groups. Movie studios, social-media outlets and pharmaceutical marketers also took part. Both types of advertisers bought multiple spots.

Fox may have another big event on its hands in weeks to come. The next Republican primary debate will be telecast on Fox Business on September 27.

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