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GOP debate scores big ratings for Fox News

August 13, 2011 |  6:28 am


The Thursday, August 11, GOP debate at Iowa State University not only saw fireworks on the stage but also generated some heat in the ratings for host network Fox News Channel.

After getting praise from such unlikely sources as the Washington Post and Time magazine for the aggressive, informed performances of anchors Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, Fox also got a lot of attention from TV viewers, as tracked by Nielsen.

The two-hour debate, which began at 6 p.m. Pacific time only on Fox News, attracted nearly 5.1 million viewers -- with a healthy 1.4 million of those in the advertiser-approved 25-54 demographic -- making it the most-watched debate of 2011.

It not only outscored Fox News' previous debate on May 5 in South Carolina (67% higher in the target demographic), it also well outpaced CNN's New Hampshire debate on June 13, which attracted just over 3.1 million viewers, with 918,000 in the 25-54 demo.

Working in Fox News' favor was the huge amount of chatter about the GOP race heading....

...into the debate, which just precedes today's Ames Straw Poll, widely considered an early bellwether for the GOP race. Both CNN and Fox News shared the advantage of airing the debates in summer, when there is less prime-time competition for viewers.

Moderated by anchor John King, the CNN debate opted for a glitzy stage set and large screens CNN-GOP-debate   
featuring viewers asking their own questions from remote locations. King also asked the candidates quick this-or-that questions on trivial subjects, such as "Coke or Pepsi?"

Fox opted for a slightly simpler setting, with queries coming only from the journalists present -- and only serious questions.

But that was enough to generate a lot of back-and-forth among the candidates, and between candidates and questioners.

(If you missed it, click here for the full video.)

But as debate participant Newt Gingrich pointed out, actual delegates don't start to be chosen until January, with the Iowa caucuses, followed later that month by the New Hampshire primary.

The next scheduled debate is Sept. 7 at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., with sponsors NBC News and Politico. That's followed by one from CNN and the Tea Party Express on Sept. 12, in Tampa, Fla., and Sept. 22 in Orlando with Fox News and the Florida Republican Party.

Thursday's debate did not feature candidate Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, who was not polling highly enough to qualify, but who is on the Ames straw poll ballot. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to announce his impending candidacy Saturday in Charleston, S.C. So, either or both of these candidates may be on hand for the upcoming events.

Native Iowan Michele Bachmann, who represents a Minnesota district in the House of Representatives, is expected to perform well in the straw poll, with anything less than a first or second place generally considered a serious blow to her campaign.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul is also expected to to have a good showing, since he has a dedicated and enthusiastic following that works hard to make sure he scores highly in online and straw polls. That includes one at the Conservation Political Action Conference in February, which he won for a second time, with 30% of the vote.

But few give the iconoclastic politician much chance of actually winning the GOP nod for president.

Lastly, in what may indeed be a sign of the apocalypse, MTV's second episode of the new season of the reality show "Jersey Shore" drew 7.4 million viewers Thursday at 10 p.m Eastern, right in the middle of the debate in that time zone. But in the war of the demos, Fox News attracted the majority of the over-50 crowd, while "Jersey Shore" drew heavily from teens and adults under 35.

We're thinking a GOP debate in an Atlantic City casino might not be the worst idea. Doesn't Donald Trump own one?


Did Ron Paul win the GOP debate in Ames?

Inside the Ames Straw Poll and what else to watch for

Iowa GOP Debate: No Perry or Palin, but plenty of verbal punches

-- Kate O'Hare

Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment news site Zap2it. Also follow O'Hare on Twitter @KateOH.

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Photos: Fox News Channel/Washington Examiner GOP Debate in Iowa; CNN GOP Debate in New Hampshire. Credits:; Darren McCollester | Getty Images