Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

It’s rare that a sequel outperforms the original. But the second presidential debate between Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney sure came close.

According to Nielsen Media Research, 65.6 million viewers tuned for Tuesday night’s fisticuffs-in-the-round. The town hall-style debate, hosted by Hofstra University in New York and moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley, was carried across 12 networks.

By comparison, the first Obama vs. Romney debate delivered a slightly larger 67.2 million viewers, while last week’s Biden vs. Ryan veep debate delivered 51.4 million viewers. Last night’s debate scored 2.4 million more viewers than the second debate between then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Last night’s strong numbers aren’t that surprising considering what an important role the first debate had on changing the story of this year’s presidential campaign, with Romney surging in the polls after facing a lethargic Obama during their initial clash. With Democrats assuring supporters the president would come out swinging, viewers were expecting — and got — a more passionate performance from the president and plenty of tense and testy exchanges. As every reality TV producer can tell you, if there’s one thing that gets viewers to tune in, it’s the promise of a fight.

Fox News led among cable networks and generated record ratings, drawing 11.1 million viewers, surpassing its performance for all its previous debate coverage this year.

Here’s the breakdown, 9:00-10:45 p.m., among cable news networks:

NBC: 13.8 million total viewers

ABC: 12.5 million total viewers

Fox News: 11.1 million total viewers/3.460m adults 25-54

CBS: 8.9 million total viewers

CNN: 5.8 million total viewers/2.581m adults 25-54

MSNBC: 4.9 million total viewers/1.920m adults 25-54

FOX: 4.6 million total viewers