US presidential debate could score Super Bowl-sized audience

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NEW YORK, Sept 22 (Reuters) - 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 in situations 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."

Looking back at recent presidential debates:

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Looking back at recent presidential debates
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Looking back at recent presidential debates
President Barack Obama (L) and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney share a laugh at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, U.S., October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo
President Barack Obama answers a question as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the first 2012 U.S. presidential debate in Denver, U.S., October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo
U.S. Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (near) answers a question as Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) looks at him during their debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., October 7, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo
US Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) reacts to almost heading the wrong way off the stage after shaking hands with Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) at the conclusion of their final 2008 presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., October 15, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain (L) and U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (R) take part in their first 2008 U.S. presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, U.S., September 26, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo
Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush (R) and Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Al Gore speak during their presidential debate at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, U.S., October 3, 2000. REUTERS/Peter Morgan/File Photo
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (L) makes a point while answering a question during the first presidential debate with U.S. President George W. Bush, at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, U.S., September 30, 2004. REUTERS/Marc Serota/File Photo
President George W. Bush reacts during responses by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry during their debate at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, U.S., September 30, 2004. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo
Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush (L) and Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Vice President Al Gore both gesture toward moderator Jim Lehrer during the town hall-style presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, U.S., October 17, 2000. REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell/File Photo
Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush (C) laughs while Democratic presidential nominee Vice President Al Gore (R) and moderator Jim Lehrer (C) respond during the second presidential debate at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S., October 11, 2000. REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell/File Photo
Republican presidential nominee Texas Governor George W. Bush (L) and Democratic presidential nominee and Vice President Al Gore debate during the last of three U.S. presidential debates at Washington University in St. Louis, U.S., October 17, 2000. REUTERS/Jeff Mitchell/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
President Bill Clinton (R) strolls away from his podium to talk to the audience as Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole watches during their second and final debate in San Diego, California, U.S., October 16, 1996. REUTERS/Win McNamee/File Photo
Democratic Presidential nominee Governor Bill Clinton (L) Independent candidate Ross Perot (C) and President George Bush laugh at the conclusion of their Presidential debate in East Lansing, Michigan, U.S., October 19th, 1992. REUTERS/Mark Cardwell/File Photo
Democratic presidential candidate Govenor Bill Clinton makes a point as Republican candidate President George Bush disagrees, during their third and final presidential debate in East Lansing, Michigan, U.S., October 19th, 1992. REUTERS/Mark Cardwell/File Photo
President Clinton reaches out to hug his wife Hillary following his debate with Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole at the University of San Diego in San Diego, California, U.S., October 16, 1996. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn/File Photo
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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 versus 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.

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