NEW YORK -- Millions of TV viewers exercised their options to tune out Al Gore and George W. Bush, but preliminary ratings showed that ABC and CBS had a bigger audience than for the first Clinton-Dole debate four years ago.
The combined audience for ABC and CBS was an estimated 32 million people for Tuesday's presidential debate, according to an analysis of Nielsen Media Research figures from the nation's largest markets. Those two networks had roughly 26 million viewers for the first debate in 1996 between President Clinton and Bob Dole.
It wasn't possible to estimate by Wednesday morning the total audience for the debate, which also was carried by PBS, some NBC stations and cable networks.
While Gore and Bush parried over issues, the Fox network aired the drama "Dark Angel." It was the first time one of the four major broadcast networks declined to carry a presidential debate live.
Fox's estimated audience for "Dark Angel" was 14 million people, significantly higher than its usual Tuesday audience, according to Nielsen.
Given a choice, many NBC stations aired the American League baseball playoff game between the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics instead of the debate. An estimated 11 million people watched NBC -- although Nielsen could not immediately report who was watching baseball and who saw politics.
Based on ABC and CBS measurements, viewership stayed pretty steady throughout the debate. CBS's audience grew from the first half hour, and ABC dropped slightly during the last half hour, said Larry Hyams, chief of research at ABC.
"The people who tuned in at the beginning were there at the end," Hyams said.
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