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updated 8/29/2008 8:18:54 PM ET 2008-08-30T00:18:54

Barack Obama’s audience for his acceptance speech likely topped 40 million people, and the Democratic gathering that nominated him was a more popular television event than any other political convention in history.

More people watched Obama speak from a packed stadium in Denver on Thursday than watched the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, the final “American Idol” or the Academy Awards this year, Nielsen Media Research said Friday. (Four playoff football games, including the Super Bowl between the Giants and Patriots, were seen by more than 40 million people.)

His TV audience nearly doubled the amount of people who watched John Kerry accept the Democratic nomination to run against President Bush four years ago. Kerry’s speech was seen by a little more than 20 million people; Bush’s acceptance speech to GOP delegates had 27.6 million viewers.

Through four days, the Democratic convention was seen in an average of 22.5 million households. No other convention — Republican or Democratic — had been seen in as many homes since Nielsen began keeping these records for the Kennedy-Nixon campaign in 1960. There weren’t enough television sets in American homes to have possibly beaten this record in years before that.

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The convention that comes closest in interest was the 1976 Republican gathering, which averaged 21.9 million homes. That was the year President Gerald Ford fought off a challenge for the nomination from future President Ronald Reagan. For Democrats, the closest came during the 1980 convention where Sen. Edward Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the nomination.

This year’s nomination fight was another epic battle, between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Even though it was decided before the convention, viewers apparently were drawn to the historic nature of the first black man nominated as a major party presidential candidate.

Nielsen said that 38.4 million people watched Obama’s speech as it was carried live by 10 commercial networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, BET, TV One, Univision and Telemundo.

PBS also televised the speech, but didn’t pay Nielsen for a count of its national viewership. Based on a sample of several large cities, PBS estimated that an additional 4 million people saw the speech on its network. C-SPAN, which also televised the speech, has no estimate of its audience.

Obama’s speech was the fifth-highest-rated, non-sports event watched by blacks in the last 11 years. A 30th anniversary Michael Jackson special on CBS in 2001 was on top.

The acceptance speech was a particular triumph for CNN, which clearly beat the three big broadcasters head-to-head on a news event for the first time ever. An estimated 8.1 million people watched on CNN Thursday.

In general, audience estimates for the convention show the dramatically waning influence of ABC, CBS and NBC in coverage for these events. The three big broadcasters aired only one hour of convention coverage each night, and it seemed a particular handicap on Thursday as its cable competition was able to show the buildup to Obama’s speech.

ABC was the second-most network for Obama-watchers, with 6.6 million. NBC had 6.1 million, CBS 4.7 million, Fox News Channel 4.2 million and MSNBC 4.1 million.

The Republican convention begins Monday in St. Paul, Minn. Republican candidate John McCain sought to take away some of the attention from his rival on Friday by selecting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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