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The ratings for the first Republican debate were massive and unprecedented

The crowd in Cleveland watches the debate.
The crowd in Cleveland watches the debate.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

  1. Fox News's first Republican debate Thursday featuring the top 10 candidates averaged 24 million viewers while it was airing, according to Nielsen ratings estimates.
  2. That makes it by far the best-rated presidential primary debate ever, and in fact the highest-rated non-sports cable program ever, writes Chris Ariens of TVNewser.
  3. The highest-rated primary debate of the 2012 cycle drew less than a third of that audience, despite being on a broadcast network, Politico Media's Alex Weprin writes.
  4. The 5 pm debate for the bottom seven candidates in polls didn't come anywhere near the primetime debate's numbers, but still averaged an impressive 6.1 million viewers. According to Ariens, that puts it in third place in ratings of all primary debates ever aired on cable.

People are really, really interested in Donald Trump

These wild, historic numbers make it clearer than ever that the public can't get enough of Donald Trump's presidential bid. It's very difficult to imagine anywhere near this amount of people tuning in so early if the controversial celebrity billionaire wasn't in the race. He's essentially turned the campaign into a reality show, where Americans can't wait to see what will happen next.

Unexpectedly, the Republican Party's effort to cut down the number of debates from the 20 in the 2012 cycle may have ended up making them even more of a media circus. In recent cycles for both parties, the debates have been important, but the sheer number made them repetitive. They were a marathon, an endurance contest, that sometimes gave short-term boosts to novelty candidates but ended up helping the most qualified and disciplined contenders in the long run.

Now there are fewer events, but the stakes are far higher for the ones that do exist. Neither of the two men generally thought to be the top GOP contenders — Jeb Bush and Scott Walker — did well, and they won't have another opportunity for a month. There was also little discussion of policy substance — likely because Fox News has far fewer opportunities to put the candidates on the spot in debates, so there's added pressure to produce the "best TV" they can with the ones they have (which often entails more gotcha questions, or queries about electability or controversies rather than policy).

We'll have to wait for the polls to come in to see whether Trump hurt himself or helped himself on Thursday. But one thing is very clear — he made his case to a massive audience.