NEW YORK -- Donald Trump always boasted about his ratings for "Celebrity Apprentice." Now he can say the same thing about his first presidential debate, even if he didn't like the show very much.
Thursday's prime-time GOP candidates' forum on Fox News Channel reached a stunning 24 million viewers, by far the largest audience ever for that network and any cable news event. The closest was the 1992 "Larry King Live" debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot on CNN, which was seen by 16.8 million people, the Nielsen company said.
In fact, it stands as the most-watched television program of the summer so far, beating the last game of the NBA Finals and the women's World Cup soccer finals, Nielsen said.
The debate left front-runner Trump singed by the aggressive questioning of Fox's moderator team of Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. Trump tweeted out criticism of the moderators as "not very good or professional" and retweeted a message from a supporter who called Kelly a "bimbo."
Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes called his moderators "the best political team ever put on television."
Trump became the focus of Thursday's forum right away, when Baier asked the 10 candidates onstage in Cleveland which of them would not pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee or run a third-party candidacy. Trump was the only one to raise his hand, leading opponent Rand Paul to criticize him.
Kelly's sharp first question noted that Trump had called women he didn't like "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals." When Trump suggested he had only insulted Rosie O'Donnell, Kelly corrected him and asked whether this represented the proper temperament for a president and left him vulnerable to charges that he is part of a war on women. Trump pointed to his lack of political correctness.
"I've been very nice to you although I could probably not be, based on the way you've treated me," Trump told Kelly. "But I wouldn't do that."
During interviews Friday, Trump questioned whether he had actually used the words as Kelly had alleged.
"You know, some of the statements she made about the women, I don't recognize those words whatsoever," Trump said on ABC's "Good Morning America." ''We're going to take a very serious look at it."
A review of Trump's writings, televised interviews and Twitter feed show he's long used such language to describe women -- and occasionally men.
In tweets sent last year, Trump called Huffington Post editor Arianna Huffington "a dog who wrongfully comments on me" and said she is "ugly both inside and out!"
In 2012, Trump wrote on Twitter of singer Bette Midler: "But whenever she sees me, she kisses my ass. She's disgusting."
Trump has also said the same of men. "Little MacMiller, I'm now going to teach you a big boy lesson about lawsuits and finance. You ungrateful dog!" he tweeted in 2013 at a rapper who wrote a song titled "Donald Trump."
And to former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank in 2011: "Barney Frank looked disgusting -- nipples protruding -- in his blue shirt before Congress. Very very disrespectful."
During the debate, Kelly also referenced a boardroom scene from Trump's NBC's realty show, "Celebrity Apprentice," in which Trump was told by one contestant that a female teammate had gotten down on her knees to beg.
"That must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees," Trump said in response.
In the book, Trump declared that, "All the women on 'The Apprentice' flirted with me -- consciously or unconsciously. That's to be expected."
And he had this to say about women's victories on the show: "It's certainly not groundbreaking news that the early victories by the women on 'The Apprentice' were, to a very large extent, dependent on their sex appeal."
On some occasions Trump appears to have recognized he's gone too far. In April, he retweeted, then deleted, a tweet that read, "If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?"
After the debate, Trump wrote on Twitter: "I really enjoyed the debate tonight even though the foxnews trio, especially megynkelly, was not very good or professional." In another message, he wrote that Kelly "really bombed."
He retweeted several messages from others who criticized Fox, including one who wrote that "Fox viewers give low marks to bimbo MegynKelly."
On Fox after the debate, Kelly noted that it "creates an awkward dynamic" to have Trump attack her after she has asked a tough question about what he has said and done to women.
"I'm extremely proud of all of the moderators -- they asked tough, important questions and did their job as journalists," Ailes told Politico. "I think that was the best political debate team ever put on television. Their performance was outstanding."
Fox had attracted attention prior to the debate for deciding to include 10 of the 17 declared candidates in the prime-time debate. The other candidates competed in a forum that began at 5 p.m. ET to an audience of one-quarter the size. Still, even the earlier forum attracted a larger audience than all but five of 18 Republican debates televised during the 2012 election cycle.
The most-watched GOP primary debate for the 2012 election, on ABC in December 2011, had 7.6 million people, Nielsen said.
Fox attracted just under 12 million viewers for its 2012 Election Night coverage, its previous standard for biggest audience.