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Don’t have cable? Free stream available for Wednesday’s GOP debate

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NEW YORK — If you don’t have cable, you’ll still be able to watch CNN’s Republican primary debate on Wednesday night, because the network is live streaming it for free on the web.

The live stream will be front and center on CNN.com between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. It’ll also be available through the news organization’s apps and the CNNgo web site.

CNNgo is the Internet streaming version of CNN. Viewers usually have to log in with cable or a satellite provider password since CNN is part of the bundles of channels cable subscribers pay for.

Nearly 80% of homes already have access to CNN through those bundles. Wednesday’s live stream will make the debates available to anyone else with an Internet connection.

“Given the massive public interest and value of this event, and the launch of CNNgo 2.0 across all platforms, the timing was ripe to roll out this live TV preview to all of our audiences,” CNN chief product officer Alex Wellen said in an email.

He said the goal “is to reintroduce tens of millions of CNN consumers — including our pay TV subscribers — to a service that now has 100 hours of on-demand TV programming, deep personalization, and a revolutionary real-time live TV experience.”

Besides being a promotional opportunity, the live-stream offer also answers critics who said Fox News should have live streamed its August 6 GOP debate for free.

Fox only made the live debate available on the web to authenticated cable subscribers. When a YouTube channel from Sky News, part of the same parent company as Fox News, was found to be live streaming the debate for free, Fox shut it down mid-debate.

Cable news channels have been hosting debates for decades, and limiting live access to those viewers who pay for cable (as most households do). But the rise of online streaming and cord-cutting households has given rise to complaints about the restrictions.

Susan Crawford, one of the most prominent critics of the cable business, wrote in a blog post after the Fox debates that “there are all kinds of public values at stake here, and we shouldn’t glide past them. … There is no speech more central to civic life than a political debate. And yet we have allowed access to that speech by way of the common medium of our era — high-speed Internet access — to be controlled by a cabal of private actors.”

When it comes to the Internet streaming of debates, there is also a more practical concern: overloaded servers.

Some of the cable subscribers who tried to watch Fox’s live-stream on August 6 said it crashed; a Fox spokeswoman blamed “unprecedented, overwhelming demand.”

While CNN has been live streaming events for many years, Wellen said Wednesday’s debates have required more preparation than any of them. He is expecting record streaming traffic.

Still, the vast majority of the audience will likely watch the old-fashioned way, through a big-screen TV set in the living room.

If CNN’s prime time debate lives up to expectations, it will be the highest-rated program in the history of CNN, surpassing the prior record of 16.8 million viewers set back in 1993.

The prime time portion of Fox’s debate last month had 25.1 million total viewers.