GOP candidates draw a record crowd of debate viewers

December 12, 2011

Just 24 days before the Iowa caucuses, nearly 7.6 million people sat up and took notice of ABC News’s GOP presidential debate Saturday night from 9 to 11 p.m. — the biggest audience yet for a GOP presidential debate of the 2012 campaign season.

“Your Voice, Your Vote” — starring Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, co-starring candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul — ranked as Saturday night’s most watched program.

There have been so many GOP presidential debates in the past few months, it’s actually got more aired episodes than “Playboy Club,” “Free Agents” or “How to Be a Gentleman.”

The latest “Your Voice, Your Vote” on ABC outperformed the ratings record-holder — Fox News Channel’s GOP presidential hopefuls sparring match of Sept. 22 — by about 1.47 million viewers.

FNC’s debate, which clocked about 6.11 million viewers, had held the record while three more debates came and went:


The pilot episode of “Are you there, Chelsea?” with, from left, Laura Prepon as Chelsea, Chelsea Handler as Sloan, and Lenny Clarke as Melvin. (Michael Desmond/NBC)

●A CNN debate on Oct. 18 (5.5 million).

●A CNBC debate on Nov. 9 (3.3 million.

●A CBS debate on Nov. 12 (5.3 million).

“We’re just so excited people are tuning in for this election — paying attention to this election,” Diane Sawyer told The TV Column on Monday morning. “As we said, people really want to be informed for this choice. I think that’s what we’re seeing, the viewership in all these debates.”

Alec vs. the airlines

One of the big advantages to starring in a Lorne Michaels sitcom on NBC is that when you have a tantrum on an American Airlines flight — causing the flight to be delayed and you to be deplaned — you get the considerable forum of Michaels’s NBC late-night show “Saturday Night Live” that very weekend to spin your latest temper flare-up into PR gold, while, you know, American Airlines does not.

“On Wednesday of this week, actor Alec Baldwin was kicked off an American Airlines flight after he refused to turn off his phone and stop playing ‘Words With Friends,’ ” “SNL’s” Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers said during last weekend’s episode.

“Now here to comment: the pilot of that flight — Capt. Steve Rogers.”

Huge applause. Capt. Rogers was, of course, Baldwin. Seth asked the captain for his take on the events of last week.

In case you were sleeping: Baldwin, star of NBC’s “30 Rock” and co-star of TCM’s “The Essentials,” was removed from an American Airlines flight last week after refusing to turn off his mobile device while the plane was still at the gate but preparing to depart.

Here was Baldwin, spinning on “SNL”:

“It was awful, Seth, which is why it was important for me to come here tonight and, on behalf of everyone at American Airlines, issue an apology to Mr. Alec Baldwin,” Capt. Rogers told Seth.

“So, let me get this straight: You, Capt. Rogers, want to apologize to Alec Baldwin?” Seth faux-wondered.

“Yes. Mr. Baldwin is an American treasure and I’m ashamed at the way he was treated. I mean, what harm would it do to let him continue his game — not any game, mind you, but a word game for smart people,” Baldwin noted.

Then Seth asked about cellphones interfering with plane communications systems.

“You don’t believe that, do you, Seth?” Capt. Rogers shot back. “Would you really get on an airplane that flew 30,000 feet in the air if you thought one Kindle switch could take it down? Come on! It’s just a cruel joke perpetrated by the airline industry. And, we would have gotten way with it, but Alec Baldwin was just too smart for us. He really is something, Seth!”

Said Seth: But didn’t Baldwin’s hissy fit delay takeoff?

“It did, and it’s the first time in the history of American Airlines that one of our flights was delayed. Come on, Seth! We’re bankrupt! How dare we speak ill of the great Alec Baldwin when we can’t even take off on time.”

Meyers also noted that when Baldwin retreated to the lavatory, he reportedly slammed the door so loud it was heard by the pilots in the cockpit.

“Now, Seth, ‘Words With Friends’ can be frustrating. I just started playing the game myself, but when you think you’re about to play ‘jailers’ off of someone’s ‘quiche’ and then you realize you don’t have the ‘i,’ let me tell you — that would make you slam the bathroom door, too!”

NBC says it still has no comment on the whole Baldwin vs. American Airlines kerfuffle. Meanwhile, the flight attendants union reportedly has made inquiries about removing “30 Rock” from rotation on American’s in-flight entertainment slate.

Hold the vodka

The word “vodka” has been expunged from the title because it was deemed too edgy. And NBC’s Standards and Practices suits are making them rewrite portions of script after looking up the references online to figure out what the heck they mean.

But: Viewers are really gonna love the new sitcom “Are You There, Chelsea?” because it really pushes the boundaries, star Laura Prepon and creator/star Chelsea Handler insisted Monday.

Debuting Jan. 11 and airing at 8:30 p.m., the comedy series is based on E! late-night show host Handler’s books — most notably, “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea.”

But they couldn’t use “vodka” in a title, and the show has been given the less-zippy name, “Are You There, Chelsea?”

“You can’t put ‘vodka’ in the title for network purposes, so I thought, ‘Are You There, Chelsea?’ was a funny play on the fact that I’m not playing myself,” Handler told reporters and bloggers during a conference call Monday, reports The Post’s Emily Yahr.

Prepon stars in the title role, and Handler plays the Chelsea character’s born-again sister. “I thought it was a cute way to keep to the book and appease the whole anti-vodka situation,” Handler explained.

“Although there is plenty of drinking in the show — you just can’t have it in the title,” Handler assured reporters.

Prepon said she was surprised to learn that the squiffy show had been scheduled to air at 8:30 p.m. because, content-wise, “we really do push the envelope.”

And, by that she means: “There’s some stuff we get away with for the first couple [of] takes, and then Standards and Practices makes us rewrite them.”

“I think that people are really going to love the show because we really push the boundaries,” Prepon prattled on happily, after arriving late to the conference call.

So just how toned down is the show relative to Handler’s deliciously raunchy book? “They’ve gotten a little more relaxed with us, because it’s all in the name of, we’re just being funny and having a good time,” Prepon said of the network’s decency police. She then noted that a Standards and Practices suit yanked a reference — once she’d looked it up online and saw what it meant.

Sadly, Handler and Prepon took no questions about what the offending passage was. The reporters were too busy telling Handler that their mother is one of her biggest fans, and how “starstruck” they were talking to her on the telephone.

In much the same way, they did not inquire as to what Handler meant by “the whole anti-vodka situation.”

Broadcast networks do not take hard-liquor/spirit ads.

The closest anyone got to probing either subject came when one reporter asked dubiously, “So it’s not a watered-down version of the book?”

“Oh, it’s very edgy,” Handler insisted.

“Yeah, we’re definitely edgy,” Prepon added.

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