CHARLESTON, S.C. -- For the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders trying to stop front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the debate Tuesday in Charleston, S.C., was an elbow-throwing fight for survival.
The team at CBS News that produced the telecast from the Charleston Gaillard Center could empathize. The storied division underwent serious upheaval in the past year with a new president and anchor changes on its evening newscast and morning show that are fighting to hold onto viewers.
The 10th Democratic primary debate was the first chance for a revamped CBS News to show a potentially massive audience that it can hold its own with the larger and better-funded competitors in the fragmented TV landscape.
But with so much on the line before Saturday's South Carolina primary and the 14 states including California that vote on March 3, Super Tuesday, the candidates took a no-holds-barred approach that led to chaos at times. And critics on social media and some political analysts were not kind to the unruly proceedings, claiming moderators Norah O'Donnell of the "CBS Evening News" and Gayle King of "CBS This Morning" had trouble maintaining control.
CBS News' rivals, in a sign of the intense competitiveness of the TV news business, were quick to share the negative online comments with reporters after the two-hour debate.
In an interview after the debate, CBS News President Susan Zirinsky shrugged off the barbs and defended her team. She believed the network delivered a strong debate that covered a wide range of issues not extensively discussed in previous face-offs.
The aggressive attacks by the seven candidates on stage were to be expected, Zirinsky added, as Sanders could accrue an insurmountable lead in the number of delegates needed for the nomination by next week.
"After next week there are going to be a lot fewer people on that debate stage," Zirinsky said. "We're at the precipice of the most dynamic part of the campaign."
Whether viewers were turned off by the squabbling will be determined when Nielsen releases ratings data later Wednesday. The rough-and-tumble session shown Feb. 19 on NBC and MSNBC demonstrated there is an appetite for the feisty exchanges, with nearly 20 million viewers, a record for a primary debate.
Asked if the network plans to pursue another primary debate in this campaign season, Zirinsky replied, "You bet."