(Reuters) - A raucous Republican Party debate on Thursday drew the biggest audience for a televised U.S. presidential match-up in 2016, according to early ratings data, but viewership was well below the record set last August.
The Fox News Channel <FOXA.O> debate among Republican front-runner Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich drew 16.9 million viewers, according to early Nielsen data provided by the network on Friday.
That was higher than the last Republican Party debate, which aired on cable channel CNN and Telemundo on Feb. 25 and brought in a TV audience of 14.5 million.
Republican debates have drawn much higher TV audiences in this U.S. presidential cycle than those involving Democrats.
The debate was the four remaining candidates' first face-to-face encounter since Super Tuesday nominating contests this week gave extra momentum to Trump but did not knock out his rivals.[L2N16C03W]
Fox News holds the record for the largest audience for a non-sports cable TV program. Some 24 million Americans tuned in when it hosted the first of the U.S. presidential debates in August 2015. Thursday's debate in Detroit was the second-highest rated telecast in network history, Fox said.
At Thursday's debate, Trump's rivals assailed him for shifting positions on the issues but said in the end they would reluctantly support him if he were their party's nominee.
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant and Emily Stephenson; Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott; For more on the 2016 U.S. presidential race and to learn about the undecided voters who determine elections, visit the Reuters website.; http://www.reuters.com/election2016/the-undecided/)