When Kennedy and Nixon had their debates, it was little exaggeration to say that nearly the whole country stopped and watched. The three debates got Nielsen ratings of around 60, meaning that the debates were on in 60 percent of all homes that owned televisions. The third debate’s rating of 61 was higher than any since, though the one debate in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan came close.
Since then, however, viewership has declined significantly. The nadir was reached in 2000, when the final debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore got a rating of only 25.9. Viewership rebounded somewhat in 2008, but the highest-rated debate that year–the second–got a rating of only 38.8. For comparison, the most watched broadcast of the year–the Super Bowl–gets ratings in the mid-50s. So while the 1960 debates got Super Bowl-type ratings, debates in recent years have gotten ratings about 20 points lower. That means that though today’s population is almost twice what it was in 1960, the total number of people watching isn’t much higher than it was then.