Nearly 19 million watched the first Jan. 6 hearings in prime time

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Nearly 19 million television viewers watched the first prime-time hearing of the House select committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol — a quantifiable success for the Democratic-led team of lawmakers who hoped their investigation would jolt the nation’s attention.

Ratings data released Friday indicated the hearing was watched by roughly 18.8 million people across the six major American broadcast and cable networks that aired the program live Thursday night. The preliminary data comes from the Nielsen ratings service and does not include the millions more who watched the hearing on streaming apps or social media, where many clips of testimony went viral.

The major broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — cleared their popular prime-time entertainment schedules to broadcast the hearing, without commercial interruption, from 8 to 10 pm, Eastern time, as did cable news channels such as CNN and MSNBC.

ABC drew the biggest audience, nearly 4.9 million total viewers, followed by MSNBC, NBC and CBS and CNN.

The only major cable news outlet not to cover the hearing was Fox News, whose conservative opinion hosts pointedly attempted to counterprogram it — showing soundless glimpses of the hearing-room audience while they and their guests floridly disparaged the committee’s efforts. (“The dullest, the most boring, there’s absolutely nothing new, multi-hour Democratic fundraiser masquerading as a Jan. 6 hearing,” Fox host Sean Hannity declared.)

Instead, Fox dispatched two of its news anchors to host hearing coverage on much-less-watched sister channel Fox Business Network, where it drew 223,000 viewers as opposed to the 3 million who watched Fox News.

Viewers who tuned in to the hearing saw never-before-seen video footage of the day’s carnage, witness interviews conducted by the committee, and snippets of newsworthy audio from key players.

Certain moments from the hearing continued to generate headlines and attract eyeballs on Friday, such as recorded testimony of Ivanka Trump telling investigators that she didn’t believe the election was stolen.

The hearings — there will be several more after Thursday’s debut, though not all will be in prime time — have been compared to previous congressional committee sessions that have captivated the public, such as the Senate Watergate Committee hearings of 1973 and the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954.

But the media industry has changed drastically since then. Fifty years ago, most Americans regularly watched one of the big three broadcast networks. Now, a smaller pool of viewers is split between several broadcast channels, cable channels and myriad digital platforms, many offering the public a chance to see the hearings in bite-sized clips.

Viewers who flipped between channels found a striking uniformity in presentation of the hearing, with networks mostly keeping an unblinking camera on the proceedings of the committee, distinguishing themselves only with their choice of anchors and pundits to analyze the hearing after its conclusion at 10 pm

Those in the television business had particularly lofty expectations for Thursday’s broadcast considering the behind-the-scenes role played by former ABC News president James Goldston, who helped hone the committee’s presentation for a television audience.

“The tone was sober. The thematic through-line was tight and focused. The timeline video was hard to watch but not exploitative, in my view,” said Andrew Heyward, former head of CBS News. “All in all, I felt the production reinforced the gravity of the moment without sensationalizing it.”

Industry watchers expressed some advance skepticism about viewership, considering the trends of recent decades. While some 71 percent of Americans told Gallup that they watched some of the Watergate hearings live back in 1973, the first televised hearing of Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial drew only about 13 million viewers in 2019, though it aired starting in the lesser-watched morning hours. Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s testimony in July 2019 also drew nearly 13 million viewers, which was shy of the 19.5 million TV viewers who watched former FBI director James B. Comey’s testimony in 2017.

While he thought Thursday night’s hearing made for compelling television, industry analyst Brad Adgate cited both increased polarization and the proliferation of new video services to explain the drop from the Watergate-era viewing highs.

The second hearing of the committee is scheduled for Monday morning at 10 am, giving it a lower television profile. “It will be difficult to sustain the numbers going forward, but I anticipate a sizable audience and a lot of social media buzz,” Adgate said.

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