By Jose Serrano ( | First Posted: Oct 14, 2015 07:12 PM EDT

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: (L-R) Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley walk on the stage at the end of a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five Democratic presidential candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate. (Photo : Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

CNN didn't expect much in terms of ratings heading into Tuesday night's first Democratic primary debate.

Nielsen reported Wednesday afternoon that CNN not only exceeded expectations, they set the record for sixth-biggest non-sports telecast in cable television history.

Their average of 15.3 million viewers also broke a Democratic presidential debate record set in 2008 when then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama tangled with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. For comparison, it topped the season six premier of AMC's "The Walking Dead" (14.6) and NBC's "Sunday Night Football" telecast (9.4), according to Nielsen.

A live stream of the broadcast peaked at 980,000 viewers around 10:20 p.m. EST, according to CNN. Whereas Fox News' debate was only available online with a cable subscription, CNN made their free on all platforms, from their home page to Android and iOS CNN apps. Concurrent streams this time around blew past the 921,000 for the Sept. 16 debate.

The network didn't have Donald Trump's polarizing personality, among other Republican presidential hopefuls, and Vice President Joe Biden chose to hold off on any sort of official announcement until later this month.

Up against returning fall TV shows and the MLB playoffs, all CNN had going for them was hope that inquisitive minds would tune in to watch Clinton explain her email scandal controversy, or understand why grassroots candidate Bernie Sanders is neck-and-neck with Clinton in several national polls. Topping Fox News' Aug. 6 figure of 24 million was near impossible.

Nearing their own mark of 23 million for last month's GOP debate was just as inauspicious, yet CNN's social media presence appeared to thrive over the previous events.

The #DemDebate hashtag trended across Twitter and Facebook throughout the evening, catching the attention of comedians, politicians, and even Trump who tweeted "#DemDebate was really boring but had a lot of fun live tweeting and picked up by far the most followers."

International web users with a Samsung VR headset utilized the network's VR live stream; a 360-degree viewing option from vantage points of four live-streaming cameras. According to internal data given to CNN, at least 73 countries watched in virtual reality.

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