NEW YORK (AP) — It's safe to turn the TV back on. CNN's Republican presidential debate really is over.
"I woke up this morning and turned on my set and half expected to see the 11 of them still up there yammering," said Alan Schroeder, professor at Northeastern University and author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV."
Wednesday's three-hour debate, which came after a two-hour preliminary event involving low-polling candidates, is the longest such contest in the modern media era, Schroeder said. Most presidential debates are either 90 minutes or two hours.
Yet presidential debates have never before been such a commercial juggernaut, and CNN was rewarded for its attention on Thursday when the Nielsen company estimated that 22.9 million people watched. While shy of the 24 million people who saw Fox News Channel's first debate in August, it still easily ranked as the most-watched event in CNN's 35-year history. The previous high was the 16.8 million who saw a 1993 episode of "Larry King Live" featuring Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot.
The extra time gave CNN more commercials to sell, and because of Fox's success in August the network was charging rates that rivalled those of hit broadcast shows. CNN never responded to Republican front-runner Donald Trump's suggestion last week that the network donate profits from the debate to veterans groups.
"The networks are seeing these debates as a moneymaking activity as much as a civic exercise," Schroeder said.
The third-hour debate occasionally felt like the 25th round of a boxing match, with contestants wiping sweat away and slumping over their podiums.
Politico reporter Glenn Thrush joked on Twitter: "this debate is longer than the first gulf war."
Like other networks, CNN has been criticized in recent weeks for Trump-obsessed coverage, and that carried over into the beginning of the debate. Four of the first five questions were either addressed to Trump or were about him and things that he has said.
In the first five minutes, Trump attacked three of his rival candidates. One attack, on Rand Paul, was unprovoked and the other — saying former New York Gov. George Pataki couldn't be elected dog catcher — concerned a candidate that wasn't even on the stage. The tone, and the questioning, irked Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
"This is what's wrong with this debate," Walker said. "We're not talking about real issues."
"If I were at home watching this back and forth, I'd be inclined to turn it off," said Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Tapper, joined occasionally by Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt, stuck to a clear strategy with questions. Most of the time, they would ask a candidate about a specific criticism made by a rival, and ask the candidate to address that rival. For example, while addressing Trump, Tapper noted that Jeb Bush had said that he was not a serious candidate. "Tell Gov. Bush why you're a serious candidate," he said.
Following that template led to the debate's most memorable moment, when Carly Fiorina rejected Trump's interpretation of remarks that he had made about her appearance. Not only did the audience give Fiorina a burst of applause, but Nielsen Social reported Thursday that it was the most tweeted-about event within the debate.
The strategy allowed candidates to get into a back-and-forth with each other, usually the goal of any debate moderators, and allowed for the introduction of some issues with specificity. It also allowed for split-screen pictures, often of Trump with a sour look on his face.
Tapper struggled at times to corral the participants, a near-thankless task given that he was trying to deal with 11 people who often wanted to speak at the same time. Without any bells or lights to signal a candidate had spoken longer than the agreed-upon terms, Tapper was left to cut candidates off on his own. "Thank you" became his go-to phrase. During one tussle, he tried to get Fiorina to stop talking about a military buildup three times before moving on to someone else.
Democratic candidates will tangle in the next presidential debate, on CNN on Oct. 13. The next GOP debate will air on CNBC on Oct. 28.