Politico’s Hadas Gold started with this headline: “CNN’s three-hour debate from hell.” Except for the part when Jeb Bush slapped Donald Trump’s hand very hard, which was heaven.

Yahoo’s Ken Tucker ripped it as a “mess at once hectic and tedious.” Except for the part where Sen. Rand Paul fantasized about a Secret Service nickname “JusticeNeverSleeps.”

Justin Peters, writing at Slate, called it an “utter failure.”

Except for the 23 million people who tuned in Wednesday night to check out the inexcusable moderator lapses, the missed opportunities, the marathonic CNN political programming. Though not quite the Fox News mark of 24 million for its Aug. 6 debate — a cable-news record — it’s the biggest ratings get in CNN’s 35-year history. The next-closest-ranked presidential primary debate on CNN took place in January 2008 and pulled in 8.3 million viewers. On top of its historic tube numbers, CNN.com logged an unthinkable 4.5 million live-streaming starts of the debate.

Did CNN boost its own numbers by subordinating its programming for days to the promotion of the debate? Oh, yeah. By presenting the arrivals of the various candidates at the debate site as news scoops? Uh-huh. By engaging in a Super Bowl-level of vacuous pregame analysis? Again, yes. CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker told the Erik Wemple Blog on Wednesday night that the world cooperated, producing a few slow news days in the lead-up to the debate. “We go all in when there’s a big story. And this was consistent with — this was the big story of the week. It happened to be on CNN, but it was the big story of the week, and so you know, we approached it like that. … In addition, if you look at the news of the world this week, it’s been a relatively quiet week.”

Until now, that is: News organizations are grabbing all the strands left behind by the festivities, wondering about the implications of Carly Fiorina’s consensus standout performance, Trump’s answer to the vaccine question and many other storylines — storylines that will feed more public clamoring to watch the next debate. With a lineup that includes the likes of Trump and Fiorina and Ted Cruz and the vitriolic Chris Christie, there may be no such thing as a bad debate, especially for all those people in TVland.