Rough debate performance by moderators a blow to CBS News

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From left, Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer, participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Charleston, S.C., co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – CBS News faced an ill-timed blow to its reputation on Wednesday following a bruising Democratic presidential debate that its moderators struggled to keep from spiraling out of control, although it could take some comfort in the numbers.

The Nielsen company reported that 15.3 million people watched Tuesday night's debate in South Carolina on CBS and BET. While down from the 19.8 million who saw last week's debate from Nevada on NBC and MSNBC, it revealed that public interest is high.

Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell tried to manage seven presidential candidates fighting for their lives Tuesday, just a week before the South Carolina and Super Tuesday primaries. Particularly at the start, the journalists looked like substitute teachers in front of an unruly school class.

“This is way worse than any bad day at ‘The View,’” tweeted that show's Meghan McCain, no stranger to verbal brawls.

CBS News could have used a boost as it navigates new corporate management with Viacom. The network flubbed its handling of a King interview with Lisa Leslie following Kobe Bryant's death that angered the anchor and made her the subject of threats and criticism, and is facing headwinds trying to establish its evening news in a new Washington base.

Instead, the debating Democrats ran roughshod over rules and it sometimes seemed they were talking and gesturing all at once.

“When you have that much pent-up tension and that much at stake, it makes it nearly impossible to fit tidy answers in a limited amount of time,” said Michael Clemente, who has produced debates for ABC News and Fox News Channel.

Experience counts, and both King and O'Donnell had not done a similar event of this magnitude. CBS, which was televising its first debate of this campaign, also had backstage leadership that had not done a presidential debate.