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Television's new reality show

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney (L) and Gov. Rick Perry speak during a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and The Tea Party Express at the Florida State fairgrounds on Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla.

Kai Ryssdal: The Republican presidential field schleps to Rochester, Mich., tomorrow for what feels like the umpteenth debate leading up to the primaries next year. And there will be more debates once the voting actually starts.

Why so many? Because, as Marketplace's Jennifer Collins reports, people are watching. Or more properly, they can't not watch.


Jennifer Collins: Republican candidates agree on one thing: They want President Obama out. On pretty much everything else, they fight.

Here's Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney: Would you please, would you please wait?

Rick Perry: You knew that you had illegals working at your...

Romney: Are you just going to keep talking?

They fight with moderators.

Rick Santorum: Let me finish.

Fox News' Chris Wallace (Moderator): No. No. There are rules here, sir.

Fox News' Bret Baier (Moderator): Your time has expired.

They fight about fighting.

Politico's John Harris (Moderator): But, but Speaker Gingrich...

Newt Gingrich: Look the fact, the fact, No.

Harris: We've got to, if I got into a fight but we've got...

Gingrich: The fact, the fact is -- no.

Rita Kirk: Debates have become reality TV.

Rita Kirk is a political consultant and a professor at Southern Methodist University. As the campaign gets underway, political debates are becoming major events. They're unpredictable. They've got rowdy audiences -- and even rowdier candidates.

Kirk: Week after week, we go back to see how they're doing this week and what has changed.

Larry Novenstern: It's like train-wreck television. They want to see crashes.

Larry Novenstern is with Orion Trading, an ad-buying firm. He says those crashes are no accident -- they're straight out of the reality show playbook.

Novenstern: Producers are using that script in their head to come up with the most inflammatory ways to get viewers.

And they're getting them. A recent debate on CNN brought in 10 times the viewers who typically show up for primetime cable news. As for revenue, Novenstern says a 30-second commercial during the debates might bring in five times the usual fee. Little wonder, there are more than 20 debates on the calendar and more added all the time.

Rita Kirk says that's quite the about-face.

Kirk: There was a time in our history when debates almost went away because people weren't watching them, so literally almost faded from the landscape.

After all, many candidates were taking their cues from these two fellas.

John F. Kennedy: The question before us is: Which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?

Howard K. Smith: Mr. Nixon, would you like to comment on that statement?

Richard Nixon: I have no comment.

When was the last time you heard that?

I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

About the author

Jennifer Collins is a reporter for the Marketplace portfolio of programs. She is based in Los Angeles, where she covers media, retail, the entertainment industry and the West Coast.
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