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GOP suspends NBC from hosting debates. What's behind big move?

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Mark J. Terrill/AP

(Read caption) Jeb Bush, second from left, is flanked by Mike Huckabee, left, Marco Rubio, center, Donald Trump, second from right, and Ben Carson during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday in Boulder, Colo.

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Republicans say they’re mad as heck with NBC and they’re not going to take it anymore. On Friday, the Republican National Committee announced that it was “suspending” its agreement with the Peacock Network for an upcoming debate in February due to simmering party anger over the way CNBC handled Wednesday’s debate.

CNBC had promised candidates that the showdown in Boulder, Colo., would focus on economic issues, wrote RNC chief Reince Priebus in a letter to NBC News president Andrew Lack. But it didn’t, Mr. Priebus charged. Among other indications of this, candidates were denied an expected opening question on financial issues, Priebus said.

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Speaking time was not monitored for fairness, according to the RNC letter, and questions were petty, mean-spirited, and designed to embarrass the contenders.

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“What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas,” wrote Priebus.

This complaint does not exactly come as a bolt from the blue. Er, red. The conservative blogosphere has been awash with anger for days over perceived bias in the CNBC questions, which among other things asked candidates to name their biggest faults, asked Donald Trump if he were running a “comic book version” of a campaign, and included a female moderator referring to “our cause” while asking about gender-based pay disparity.

But flashy debate queries intended to provoke and/or promote conflict aren’t exactly limited to CNBC. The first question from CNN’s Anderson Cooper to Hillary Clinton at the Democratic debate was: “Will you say anything to get elected?”

Given that, why has the RNC decided to take a stand now?

The candidates forced the GOP’s hand, for one thing. Representatives from a number of the campaigns were planning to meet in Washington on Sunday to discuss how to remove control of what they see as a chaotic debate process from the RNC’s control.

Advisers from the camps of Mr. Trump, Ben Carson, Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Sen. Lindsey Graham have been organizing this revolt, according to Politico. Other candidates have been invited to join and were expected to send participants.

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But the larger reason for the uproar may be the simple fact that debates have exploded in popularity and have thus suddenly become more important to both the participants and the broadcasters.

With 15 to 20 million viewers per episode, debates have become a reality show that has supplanted many old-fashioned methods of primary campaigning. A great debate performance can boost an unknown, as Carly Fiorina has shown. It can badly damage a pre-debate favorite, per the stumbles of Jeb Bush. It can simply replace traditional travel and town halls as a primary means of connecting with voters.

For low-polling hopefuls such as South Carolina Senator Graham, more speaking time at debates isn’t a subsidiary issue. It’s campaign life-and-death. Meanwhile, outsiders such as Trump and Dr. Carson want to continue to dominate, while limiting the time of potential rivals such as Sen. Marco Rubio.

But the networks now have huge incentives to produce the most conflict-ridden, dramatic debates that they can. So far in 2015 the debates have been among the most-watched non-sports cable shows ever. That’s money in the bank for broadcasters, some of whom are otherwise struggling to attract a mass audience.

That’s a recipe for institutional conflict. So far, it’s unclear whether the RNC will in fact pull its next debate with NBC, scheduled for February in Houston, and put it up for rebid with other networks. But the Priebus letter probably presages changes to come. When the next presidential cycle rolls around, will the parties just produce their own debates with their own moderators and stream them on high-speed Internet directly into US homes?

“The media would still cover the debates no matter what,” writes Ed Morrissey at right-leaning Hot Air. “Media filing rooms fill up with correspondents from all outlets, not just the one broadcasting the debate, and that won’t change in a presidential cycle.”