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By Michael Hewitt, The Orange County Register(TNS)

The hottest new reality series of the fall features a bunch of middle-aged and older folks who just stand in place for a couple of hours.

Even odder, it flits from network to network despite ratings they would kill for.

Of course, we’re talking about the presidential primary debates, which have produced record ratings even when Donald Trump doesn’t show up.

Last Tuesday’s debate among the leading Democratic candidates drew more than 15 million viewers to CNN, the most for any primary debate in history – except for the first two Republican debates this year, which drew 24 million to Fox News Channel and 23 million to CNN.

Primary debates always have done well, but viewership is through the roof this year. The previous records were set in 2008. Since then, TV ratings in general have shrunk, which makes the current spike even more remarkable.

The first GOP debate ranks as the highest-rated live event in cable TV history, not counting sports.

Many factors help account for the growth, but Trump must get most of the credit. He was a big media star before he decided to run for president and his ability to speak to the TV audience – honed in a decade of hosting “The Apprentice” – has made him a huge drawing card.

Politicians always have sparred with each other, but Trump has thrown out the rulebook for such battles, and people tune in for his outrageousness.

The Democratic debate must have benefited from the spillover. But the most quoted comment came when Bernie Sanders defended Hillary Clinton. With no Trumpian body blows thrown, one wonders if the Democrats will do as well next time, which comes Nov. 14 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The next GOP debate – Oct. 28 on CNBC – almost didn’t have Trump, who refused to take part unless the show was limited to two hours and candidates were allowed opening and closing statements. After fellow candidate Ben Carson concurred with Trump, CNBC had little choice but to concede.

Ad Age reported that CNN’s commercials around the Democratic debate cost 40 times as much as the network’s base price.

Photo: Republican 2016 presidential candidates (L-R) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Dr. Ben Carson, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, businessman Donald Trump, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, U.S. Senator Rand Paul and Ohio Governor John Kasich pose at the start of the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015. (REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk)

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