Presidential Debate Expected to Draw Super Bowl-Sized Audience

A combination photo shows Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Los Angeles on May 5 and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Eugene, Oregon, on May 6. The candidates will face off in their first debate on Monday night. Reuters/Lucy Nicholson and Jim Urquhart

Live, unscripted and unpredictable, the first 2016 U.S. presidential debate on Monday is expected to set new television audience records, with some commentators forecasting Super Bowl-sized viewership of around 100 million Americans. The face-off between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in the New York City suburb of Hempstead will be carried across multiple U.S. broadcast and cable networks without commercial breaks for 90 minutes.

Political and media experts say the extraordinary nature of the campaign, featuring Trump, the outspoken N.Y. businessman and former reality TV star, vying for votes with Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state and first woman to run for the White House, is expected to break the record TV audience of 80 million for the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, according to Nielsen.

"My prediction is a 100 million audience, and maybe more," said Paul Levinson, a communications professor at New York's Fordham University and author of "McLuhan in an Age of Social Media."

"The Super Bowl shows that when there is something that is really special, something that can command people's interest, something you want to see on a big screen, television has this enormous power and reach," Levinson said.

The National Football League's annual Super Bowl is the most watched television event of the year in the United States, with the 2015 game holding the record of 115 million viewers. The 1983 finale of comedy series "M*A*S*H" holds the record for a non-sporting event with 105 million viewers, per Nielsen. This year's Academy Awards ceremony was watched by just 34 million Americans. The optimistic predictions for Monday's debate are fueled by the primaries' record audience of 24 million for the first Republican primary debate in August 2015 that was attributed to Trump's presence. Alan Schroeder, author of "Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail," said an audience of 100 million seemed possible, especially given Trump's wild-card nature.

"Normally we see candidates in very choreographed settings, and insituations where they are fully in control. (In the debates) they have to give that up and that makes it attractive to viewers - the sense of danger, of not knowing how it will play."

Add in the media hype with cable news channels showing count-down windows days in advance, and the first debate becomes must-see TV. Schroeder, a journalism professor at Boston's Northeastern University, compared the allure of Trump vers us Clinton to the 2008 vice presidential debate between Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden. At 69.9 million U.S. viewers, it ranks as the second most viewed campaign debate ever.

"Palin was also a really compelling TV figure and had that same sense of danger around her," he said.

Monday's debate will be broadcast at the same time as the popular Monday Night Football on ESPN, but Levinson doubted it would make a big dent in the debate audience.

"It's not a crucial game, it's not a Super Bowl, it's not a playoff ... I think most football fans will feel they can afford to miss this game," Levinson said.