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The Clinton-Trump debate broke TV records — but it wasn’t the Super Bowl

84 million people watched last night.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Last night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump drew more viewers than any debate in history.

But it still wasn’t the biggest TV event of the year.

Nielsen says Clinton-Trump drew an average of 84 million viewers, beating the record Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan set in 1980, when they attracted 80.6 million viewers.

Four years ago, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney drew 67.2 million viewers in their highest-rated debate.

But even a record-setting debate isn’t the Super Bowl: This year’s matchup between the Broncos and the Panthers averaged 111.9 million viewers. The game has been consistently hovering around or above the 110 million-viewer mark for the past several years.

While some prognosticators thought Clinton-Trump might come close to that level, there were lots of reasons the debate wouldn’t get to that number: For starters, it was up against “Monday Night Football,” which attracted eight million viewers. And like every other TV show, it was up against an infinite array of digital options.

There’s also the fact that many people don’t like one or both of the candidates, which makes not watching them onstage an appealing choice.

Still, the audience Clinton and Trump did attract is an extraordinary one.

Reagan and Carter had a single debate, not three of them, and it was staged in an era where almost everyone watched the same thing on TV, because there was almost no choice — you watched CBS, ABC, NBC or nothing, more or less. No Twitter, no Facebook, no Snapchat — not even Fox, which didn’t launch until the 1990s.

To focus that kind of attention in 2016 means something amazing is happening.

This article originally appeared on

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