Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, left, former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, center, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.), pose for a photo at an earlier debate. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

DAVENPORT, Iowa -- Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley on Friday chided executives at NBC for coming up with criteria for the next Democratic debate that could leave him off stage.

At a campaign stop here, O’Malley accused the network of treating the debate process “as if it’s another episode of ‘The Apprentice,’” the popular NBC show formerly hosted by Donald Trump -- now the Republican presidential front-runner -- in which contestants are eliminated each week.

“Well I’ve got news for them: This election is not up to NBC executives, not up to pollsters, it’s up to you, the people of Iowa,” O’Malley said.

His comments followed an announcement earlier by NBC that the fourth Democratic debate, which it is broadcasting Jan. 17 in South Carolina, would be limited to candidates with an average of 5 percent in national polls or in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.

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O’Malley is currently right on the cusp of 5 percent in Iowa and otherwise below the threshold. His standing could still change, because the criteria takes into account polls up until Jan. 14.

It remains to be seen how much danger O’Malley is really in.

The Democratic National Committee, which is sponsoring the debates, indicated Friday that it expects O’Malley to be on stage in South Carolina. And spokesmen for both the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were supportive of O’Malley as well.

“We believe all three candidates should participate in the South Carolina debate, and oppose any criteria that might leave someone excluded,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said on Twitter.

“Bernie thinks Governor O'Malley should be in the debate,” Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said. “Fair is fair.”

O'Malley has previously been critical of the DNC for limiting the number of party-sanctioned debates to six, only four of which take place before the first nominating contest in Iowa.