WASHINGTON - A staggering 24 million viewers tuned in to Fox News to watch the first major Republican US presidential debate, the highest-rated non-sports telecast in cable television history, Nielsen figures released Friday showed.
The viewership of the prime-time 9:00 pm to 11:00 pm debate, in which frontrunner Donald Trump squared off against nine of his top Republican challengers for the nomination, is by far the highest rating of any presidential primary debate.
"Fox had 24 million viewers last night. That is an absolutely monster number," tweeted Fox media commentator Howard Kurtz.
Ratings monitor Nielsen Media Research said that among the telecast's viewers, 7.9 million were in the 25-54 age range, the key advertising demographic.
By comparison, the first Republican debate of the 2012 primary season, on May 5, 2011, averaged 3.3 million viewers.
Numbers were also huge for the second-tier debate which took place at 5:00 pm Thursday and featured the seven low-polling candidates who failed to make the cut for the prime time event.
Some 6.1 million people watched the preliminary debate, Nielsen said.
The debate night appears to have been a multi-platform smash.
Facebook, which co-sponsored the showdowns, said 7.5 million people in the United States made 20 million debate-related interactions on Facebook, including likes, posts, comments and shares, the social media giant said Friday.
Twitter reported that tweets about the two debates were viewed a whopping 1.1 billion times.
Kurtz argued that the sky-high viewership was a combination of "huge public interest, Trump, August lull and riveting television." Trump, who afterwards accused Fox moderators of asking "unfair" questions of him during the debate, was clearly a main factor - and in a brutal tweet Friday he let the broadcaster know it.
"@FoxNews you should be ashamed of yourself. I got you the highest debate ratings in your history & you say nothing but bad," Trump tweeted to his 3.5 million followers.
In an interview with CNN late Friday, Trump credited himself for the record ratings.
"If I wasn't in the event, they probably would have done two million, three million people max," he said. "So, I'm very happy about it. Most people say that I won the debate and I won it easily." The debate viewing results are not just good news for Fox.
The Republicans will host at least eight more debates as the party whittles down its broad field and determines its flagbearer to go up against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The next Republican debate is scheduled for September 16 in California and will be broadcast on CNN.
The debut Democratic Party debate is scheduled for October 13 in Nevada, also on CNN.