There’s one big difference between this year’s GOP presidential debates and those leading up to the 2008 contest: People are watching them. This September’s Fox News debate, for example, attracted 6.1 million viewers—almost double the 3.2 million that Fox’s September 2007 debate drew, the New York Times reports. No one’s entirely sure what’s behind this ratings bonanza, but they’ve got theories, the big one being that economic and political unease are pushing viewers to tune in.
Others credit lively candidates or flashier production values—CNN, for example, has set all its debates in big arenas. “Just anecdotally, the bigger the event feels on TV, the bigger the audience,” one CNN executive explains. Of course, there’s also no Democratic primary competing for air time, so some Democrats may be scoping the competition. The cable news channels don’t directly benefit from those ratings since they sell few debate ads, but “it’s a great tent pole,” one Fox exec says. “You get to showcase your best people.” (Click for more on tomorrow's GOP debate.)