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It was the smallest TV audience for a presidential debate since 2004, but CNN’s telecast was still among the highest-rated programs of the year.

The numbers are in: 51.3 million Americans tuned in live to watch Thursday night’s televised debate between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump.

The prime-time bout, organized by CNN and simulcast on more than a dozen networks, was easily the most-viewed moment of the 2024 presidential campaign, the sort of mass civic gathering that is increasingly rare in a choose-your-own-news era of media. And the figure released on Friday by Nielsen, which mostly measures traditional TV sets, did not include the likely millions more who watched on digital news sites and social media platforms.

The size of the TV audience — similar to that for an N.F.L. conference championship game — could be grim news for the Biden campaign, given the shaky and stumbling performance by the

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