Monday night’s first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is expected to be the most watched debate ever, with an audience expected to exceed 100 million people. According to The Hill, nearly 3 in 4 voters will watch the first Trump-Clinton debate — an audience size never seen before in U.S. politics and one that rivals Super Bowl ratings. The predicted figure would make the debate one of most-watched TV events in the history of the medium, which is even more remarkable in an era in which Americans have countless cable and streaming options.
Experts in both politics and television are expecting huge numbers because they have already witnessed one of the most dramatic, volatile and unpredictable presidential races in U.S. history. The highest rated presidential debate to date was between President Carter and Governor Reagan in 1980 with 80.6 million viewers. In 2012, the first two presidential debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney averaged 66.4 million viewers.
“I think debate ratings, especially the first one, will be through the roof, astronomical, and may even approach Super Bowl numbers of viewers,” says Paul Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University and author of the book New New Media.
The Super Bowl famously draws the largest amount of viewers for an event in the U.S. This past Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers attracted 111.9 viewers. Pop star Katy Perry’s performance at the 2015 Super Bowl had 118.5 million viewers.
Much of the anticipation surrounding Monday’s debate is driven by Trump’s sensationalism, as well as it being the first time a male candidate is pitted against a female candidate.
According to Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, viewers sense the potential for drama and the unpredictable. “The reason [for 100 million viewers] is the extraordinary interest in this presidential election, featuring two unprecedented and highly controversial candidates,” McCall said. “The first woman [to be nominated by a major party] versus someone with zero political experience or government service.”
One factor that could potentially interfere with the debate’s ratings it that it’s at the same time as Monday Night Football. The NFL game begins at 8:30 p.m.(EST) on ESPN, a half-hour before the debate is scheduled to begin, and averages about 12.9 million viewers each week.
Monday’s debate begins at 9:00 p.m. (EST) and will be hosted by NBC News anchor Lester Holt at Hofstra University in New York. All of the broadcast networks, cable news networks, Univision, PBS and a number of streaming options will carry the event.
Trump and Clinton will debate two more times on Oct. 9 and Oct. 19.