LOS ANGELES, Oct 4 (Reuters) - More than 58 million Americans tuned in to Wednesday's first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, early figures show, higher than the television audience for the first 2008 match-up between Obama and Republican John McCain.
More than 37 million watched the 90-minute encounter on the four leading broadcast networks and 21 million turned to cable news channels CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, according to preliminary figures from Nielsen media.
The viewing figures are expected to rise when final data is released by Nielsen later on Thursday that will include smaller TV networks.
In 2008, some 52.4 million Americans watched Obama and McCain, both U.S. senators at the time, go head to head in their first presidential debate. But that figure was dwarfed by the vice-presidential encounter four years ago between Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden, which was watched by 69.9 million - the second most-viewed debate ever.
According to Nielsen, the most-watched presidential debate on U.S. television was the October 1980 encounter between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, which drew 80.6 million viewers. Nielsen only began collecting such presidential debate data in 1976.