Say what you will about the GOP and its track record in presidential cycles — at least in this one, it’s the most popular show around. Despite having the lowest household-clearance rates of the four debate broadcast sponsors so far, Fox Business News set a record for its eight years, garnering 13.5 million viewers over the air during last night’s presidential debate. Another 1.4 million tuned in on line, setting a record according to the Hollywood Reporter’s Michael O’Connell:

Overnight returns give Fox Business Network’s primetime showing a 8.9 rating among households and 13.5 million viewers in primetime. That’s just shy of the 9.5 rating and 14 million viewers earned by CNBC’s recent coverage for the third. It’s a guaranteed record for the channel. Just eight years old, the youngest cable news network and Fox News Channel sister has never approached such highs before.

This debate also ranks as the least distributed, with Fox Business in slightly fewer homes than CNBC — and both networks lacking the reach of the first two debates’ broadcasters, Fox News Channel and CNN. Fox Business also streamed the event, scoring a debate best 1.4 million concurrent streams.

There is a slight downside to these numbers, O’Connell argues, as the ratings have declined over the stretch of the four debates. That’s true, although the CNBC debate had to compete against the World Series, but the slide appears to have slowed down or stopped for now. Given the low household clearance and the record streaming audience, this audience was at least on par with the CNBC debate, and perhaps surpassed it slightly. At any rate, the ratings still far exceed the average audiences of the last cycle, as Brian Stelter noted two weeks ago:

In past elections, GOP primary debates have averaged 3 million to 5 million viewers at this point in the cycle.

In other words, even this decline puts the ratings at around three times as many viewers as in 2011’s debates at the same point in the cycle. Even allowing for the overexposure of candidates in the repetitive debates the last cycle, it still seems that enthusiasm for Republican presidential candidates runs high — or arguably for one on particular, Donald Trump.

What about the debate itself? Even while many praised the FBN/Wall Street Journal debate as the most substantive of the four, Chris Cillizza disagrees. He wants more drama:

The praise for the Fox Business debate — and the inherent criticism of the CNBC one — was that it was “substantive” and “focused on the economic issues people care about.”  But, here’s the thing: Ask yourself if you (or the average viewer) learned one thing about any of the candidates you didn’t know already? Ask yourself if ANY of the eight candidates on that stage was ever moved outside of their comfort zones for even a minute?

If you are being honest, the answer to both of those questions is “no.”  The vast majority of the “debate” featured almost zero actual debating between the candidates.  (Aside from an exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul on foreign policy and one other broader conversation between the candidates about taxes, I’m hard pressed to remember a single extended exchange between the candidates.) Instead, the candidates largely spilled out as much of their talking points/stump speech as they could fit in their 90-second allotted window.

Look. That’s not all Fox Business’s fault. That’s the way the candidates — and their campaigns — want it. The less interaction between them, the less on-your-feet thinking the candidates have to do.  The less on-your-feet thinking, the smaller the chance of making some sort of campaign-altering mistake or flub. The safest course is to limit the ability of either the moderators or the other candidates to go off script in any meaningful way. …

Which is fine and dandy as a campaign strategy.  But, it’s terrible for what should be the purpose of debates: helping viewers understand who these people are and how they think.  Allowing them to recite talking points and/or not following up when they say things that are either wrong or don’t make much sense doesn’t make for a “good” debate. It makes for a bad one.

Er … I certainly recall more interpersonal exchanges, in both debates. Bobby Jindal repeatedly went after Chris Christie in the undercard. Ted Cruz dismantled John Kasich on bank bailouts in an argument that Cillizza surprisingly forgets, and Kasich and Trump got into it over immigration. Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush both went after Donald Trump on foreign policy. The only candidate who stayed out of those exchanges was Ben Carson. The exchanges got so testy that Trump complained about having to put up with them, twice — once with Kasich and another time with Fiorina.

What Cillizza seems to want, especially in that final paragraph of the excerpt, is for moderators to argue with the candidates, as CNBC’s panel did. But that is a tactic for interviews, not a debate among candidates. Moderators are there to propose questions and get answers, and the other candidates can challenge those answers as they see fit. The purpose of the debates is to inform Republican primary voters on their choices, not to aggrandize the journalists by making themselves the story, as the CNBC panel clearly did. Jake Tapper at CNN did a much better job of balancing the need for substance and spectacle, and FBN managed to wring plenty of both out of each of the two debates last night as well.

Salena Zito writes that this was a big success for the GOP, thanks to the focus on substance:

The big winner of Tuesday night’s debate was the Republican Party. The candidates were impressive, engaged, detailed on their different views of how government would work best and left you with the impression that several potential presidents were on stage. …

Most of the other candidates had very good nights as well.  A focused policy debate allowed the group to demonstrate intellectual and ideological depth, passionately but politely highlighting differences where they occurred.

Indeed. This time, the large audience got its money’s worth, and so did Fox Business News channel and the Wall Street Journal.