The first Republican debate on Wednesday night drew an audience of 12.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen, indicating robust interest despite the absence of former President Donald J. Trump, the front-runner in the race.
The viewership figure, which includes totals from both Fox News (11.1 million viewers) and the Fox Business Network (1.7 million), was significantly higher than anything else on television on Wednesday night, and outperformed the broadcast network totals combined.
The audience total, however, is a far cry from the record 24 million viewers that tuned in to Fox News for the opening Republican debate in the 2016 election cycle, which featured Mr. Trump on a debate stage for the first time. Nor did it reach the 18.1 million that watched one of the early Democratic debates in June 2019.
But the figure still exceeded expectations of some television executives, who had believed that the numbers could be low given Mr. Trump’s absence as well as cable television’s reduced presence in American homes compared with just a few years ago.
Mr. Trump, leading by a wide margin in the polls and in a running feud with Fox, opted to skip the debate. Instead, he appeared for an interview with Tucker Carlson — the former prime-time star who was ousted by Fox News earlier this year — on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. The interview was posted shortly before the debate began on Wednesday evening.
Mr. Trump declared his X interview a “blockbuster” on Thursday morning. It is not clear, however, how many people watched the interview. Anytime users on X scroll past a post with the video in their feed, it counts as a “view” — one of the few metrics the social network makes public — whether they watched the video or not. Nielsen’s television ratings more rigorously track the number of people who watched a program.
The Fox News debate featured eight candidates, who often sparred aggressively with one another, including Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Tim Scott, Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum.
The Fox News debate moderators, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, spent about 10 minutes of questions on Mr. Trump and his four criminal indictments, with Mr. Baier saying he had to acknowledge the “elephant not in the room.”
The next Republican debate will be on Sept. 27 on Fox Business.