There's no question which TV programs will attract the biggest audience Tuesday. Fox's "American Idol" and "House" will both pull in more...

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There’s no question which TV programs will attract the biggest audience Tuesday. Fox’s “American Idol” and “House” will both pull in more than 22 million viewers.

But another television show that night will score big ratings and be discussed and dissected more the next day.

The 2008 presidential campaign has evolved into what New York Times media columnist David Carr recently called “one of the most compelling runs of event television in recent years.” Unprecedented numbers are tuning in to the campaign, which hits a high point Tuesday.

“We’ve all seen how well reality shows do on TV, and this is proving to be the biggest reality show of all,” said Chuck Todd, political director for NBC and cable’s MSNBC.

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Added Jim Lehrer, who anchors PBS’ “NewsHour”: “It is a drama as much as it is a political contest. And, let’s be honest, that makes for good television.”

As one measure of the high interest in Election 2008, the five most-watched presidential debates in cable TV history have all come in recent weeks, topped by the whopping 8.3 million viewers who watched CNN’s Democratic debate from Los Angeles on Thursday.

ABC drew 9.4 million viewers for a Democratic debate and 7.5 million for the Republican one on the Saturday night before the New Hampshire primary. (The most-watched show on Saturday normally is Fox’s “Cops,” with 6.5 million viewers.)

Viewership for the cable news channels’ coverage of early primary states has more than doubled from what it was in 2004.

Television executives have reacted to these numbers the way television executives always do when ratings spike. They have ordered more “episodes,” expanding the time devoted to the campaign.

CNN, Fox News and MSNBC will go wall-to-wall with Super Tuesday coverage. ABC has tossed its Tuesday prime-time schedule in favor of five hours of political news. CBS is going with a two-hour special report, updated for the West Coast. And Fox has put together a three-hour presidential primary special — “Fox News Super Sunday” — that will air prior to the network’s coverage of today’s Super Bowl.

“The broadcast networks are paying attention,” CBS political correspondent Jeff Greenfield said. “Giving up hours of prime time in a sweeps month for ratings? That’s pretty extraordinary.”

“It’s a return to the way network television used to be,” said John Roberts, the CNN anchor and political reporter.

Roberts added that the public knows “how important and unique this election is. They’re saying, ‘Something different is going to happen this year.’ “

Certainly, TV reporters covering the candidates see that. ABC’s Kate Show, who has been with the Clinton campaign since late last year, said, “People are turning up at campaign events not just to decide who to vote for but to see a piece of history.”

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