Who won the ratings race: Fox News or Donald Trump?

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NEW YORK — Donald Trump counter-programmed Thursday’s GOP primary debate on Fox with his own prime time event. So whose show scored a bigger audience?

Answer: Fox’s debate. But it was the second lowest rated debate of the season. So Trump is certain to take credit for hurting the channel’s total viewership.

Fox News Channel’s Trump-less debate had an 8.4 household rating, according to early Nielsen data from so-called metered markets.

This means 8.4% of American metered market homes with TV sets were watching the face-off.

By comparison, two of the cable channels that showed parts of Trump’s event, CNN and MSNBC, had about a quarter of Fox’s audience combined.

So Trump’s rivals clearly came out ahead in the raw ratings.

The most recent GOP debate, televised two weeks ago on the harder-to-find Fox Business Network, had a household rating of 7.4.

So Thursday’s debate was bigger — but not by much. The other five GOP debates of the cycle have had household ratings ranging from 8.9 to 15.9.

That’s why Trump can claim victory. (His campaign had no immediate comment about the ratings on Friday.)

Actual viewership numbers will be available later in the day on Friday. Fox News likely had 11 million to 13 million viewers for the debate.

But one thing is ultimately unknowable: How many more viewers would have watched if Trump had been center stage?

Fox averaged a record-smashing 25 million viewers last August during the first debate of the season. Trump clashed with moderator Megyn Kelly that time — and avoided a rematch by skipping Thursday’s debate.

No one in the TV news business expected Fox to surpass the 25 million mark this time. Still, the early household ratings might be seen as disappointing. This was a high-stakes debate just a few days before the Iowa caucuses. And there was incessant “will he or won’t he debate?” coverage for days leading up to the main event, which should have given Fox a lift.

Then again, from Fox’s perspective, Trump’s competing event should have lifted CNN and MSNBC more than it did.

Fox will likely celebrate the fact that Thursday’s debate was higher-rated than the one two weeks ago. But its sister Fox Business Network was handicapped by weak distribution. (Its 7.4 household rating translated to 11 million total viewers.)

Perhaps a more fair comparison would be CNN’s December 15 debate, which had a 12.2 household rating and 18 million total viewers.

CNN and Fox News are on a relatively even playing field in terms of reach into cable homes.

And Thursday’s debate didn’t come close to matching December’s totals.

Fox News also live-streamed the debate; no streaming data has been released by the network.

Heading into Thursday night, Trump knew that his decision to forgo the debate was a test of his ratings magnetism.

Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski predicted that only “1 or 2 million people” would watch a Trump-free debate.

When the final ratings come in, both Trump’s camp and Fox News will be spinning the numbers in their favor.

If the debate did not draw as many viewers as Fox promised advertisers it would, the channel may have to give them extra ads for free later. These are known as “make-goods” in the TV industry.

But on Thursday a Fox executive told the Wall Street Journal that he was not expecting that to happen.

Fox’s ratings held pretty steady between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET — which means the audience was loyal even though Trump was absent.

Some viewers were likely watching the debate on the big screen while keeping an eye on Trump’s event via their smart phones.

It will be difficult to measure the total reach for Trump’s event, since coverage was spread across multiple TV channels, web streams and social networks.

It was shown in full on C-SPAN, but that channel is not rated.

On the web, there were indications that Trump dominated political conversations even without being present at the debate.

Twitter said 36% of #GOPDebate candidate mentions were about Trump, way ahead of Ted Cruz’s 16% and Marco Rubio’s 13%.

On the other hand, according to Google, “debate live stream” beat out searches for “Trump live stream” by 170% on Thursday night.

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