Impeachment hearings play big on TV, less so with viewers

The three major broadcast networks and their counterparts on cable news aired wall-to-wall live coverage. But not all Americans were riveted.
Gif illustration of Bill Taylor and George Kent on a TV as the screen radiate and multiply from the center of the frame.
Doug Chayka for NBC News / AFP/Getty

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By Daniel Arkin

The first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump on Wednesday was virtually inescapable — though, for some Americans, far from irresistible.

The three major broadcast networks and their counterparts on cable news aired wall-to-wall live coverage, breaking into regularly scheduled daytime shows to broadcast detailed opening statements from key witnesses and questions from lawmakers, nearly all of it shot in static close-ups and almost completely free of commercial breaks.

The hearing was also streamed live on most major digital platforms and exhaustively dissected — not to mention occasionally satirized — by pundits (both amateur and professional) and journalists on Twitter.

"Other than a Super Bowl, a sporting event, the finale of 'Game of Thrones,' there's not many things that Americans watch together," MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace said before the network's special report began at 10 a.m. ET. "But this is six networks today covering the same live event."

The format — procedural, methodical and sober apart from a few moments of partisan sniping — echoed the more staid broadcasts of the Watergate era. The on-screen graphics with biographical tidbits about the participants offered a modern touch, but the proceedings consisted almost entirely of dense statements and in-the-weeds exchanges.

But it was not even certain that the American public would see the hearing through traditional means like live TV, as people across the country were bombarded by a fractured, decidedly non-linear series of Facebook posts, video clips, iPhone notifications, text messages from angry relatives and political spin, including email blasts from Trump's re-election campaign.

University of Utah student Suyog Shrestha turns on a television at the school's student union as Rep. Adam Schiff speaks during an impeachment hearing on Nov. 13, 2019.Rick Bowmer / AP

"The story is being amplified tremendously through new channels. But in 1998, during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the networks had a much larger impact than any single medium," said Michael J. Socolow, a media historian and journalism professor at the University of Maine, adding that today's media landscape is far more fragmented.

It appeared not all Americans were convinced of the event's nation-shaping significance. Inside the Crowne Plaza hotel in Houston, guests stared at their cellphones and sipped coffee as the hearing played on TVs in the lobby.

Travis Smallwood, a Dallas businessman, flipped through a newspaper sports section as Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified about his concerns that the Trump administration had withheld military aid from Ukraine in a bid to pressure the country to investigate the Bidens.

"I'm sort of paying attention, but not really," said Smallwood, who added that he believed Trump had likely broken the law. "It's not like they're going to be able to remove him from office."

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Inside the Red Rock Casino Resort in west Las Vegas, only a couple of the dozens of television screens on the main floor were tuned to the hearing. Lonnie Spray, a bartender at the casino's sports bar, said he had not heard much interest in the event from patrons.

"People that I'm talking to don't want it on because they think it's a sham," said Spray, who works the graveyard shift.

Billy Koester, the bartender at a pub in South Orange, New Jersey, said he wasn't paying close attention. "I just put it on because it's happening," he said.

Meanwhile, a small handful of Twitter users complained that the network special reports had pre-empted the game show staples of daytime television, such as "The Price Is Right" and "Let's Make a Deal."

The large, imposing chambers of the House Ways and Means Committee provided the camera-ready setting for Wednesday's hearing, and some people felt moved to observe the proceedings in person instead of watching from their living rooms.

Three women told USA Today they traveled from Long Island, New York, to Washington to see the action firsthand. "We could watch this on TV, sure," one of them said. "But it's history. Who doesn't want to witness history?"

Adam Cutler, a Democrat who lives in Denver, told The Associated Press that he had organized his day around what he saw as a crucial test for democracy.

"I don't want to say it will be the tipping point, but I think it will be the beginning of a week or two where it will be very difficult for the president to change the subject," said Cutler, who told the wire service he worked from home Wednesday so he could watch closely.

In left-leaning Los Angeles, Priyanka Aribindi of the progressive media company Crooked Media, observed a group of people at a gym tuning in while they worked out.

Google Trends data showed a sharp uptick in people searching for impeachment-related topics over the last few days, suggesting that the hearing was at least breaking through the media noise even if it remained unlikely to change many minds about the Trump administration.

Wednesday's televised hearing was not the first high-stakes congressional event of the Trump era. The testimonies of former FBI director James Comey and former Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller also occasioned round-the-clock coverage, as did the fiery confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

But the Wednesday morning testimonies from Taylor and George Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy, came during a particularly dramatic chapter in Trump's presidency and right before the start of the holidays, making the hearing feel at times like the prologue to a buzzy season finale.

The impeachment inquiry, led by congressional Democrats, is heating up and could culminate in a House vote before the end of the year — weeks before the first primary votes are cast in the already fevered 2020 presidential election.

The first few hours of the hearing, while largely focused on the historical context around the U.S. relationship with Ukraine and anti-corruption efforts there, featured a few memorable moments that are sure to volley across social media echo chambers.

Traders work the floor at the New York Stock Exchange as the impeachment hearing is televised on Nov. 13, 2019.Richard Drew / AP

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, delivered an early soundbite when, after detailing some of the more troubling allegations against Trump, asked rhetorically: "If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?"

In a rebuttal, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the ranking member on the panel, used the language of Hollywood backlots to deride the hearing, accusing the Democrats of picking witnesses after a "closed-door audition process."

"It seems you agreed, wittingly or unwittingly, to participate in a drama," Nunes said to Kent and Taylor. "You've been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel" to Mueller's Russia probe, the lawmaker added.

But the hearing may not have been the sensational, fever-pitch political spectacle some viewers and television news producers might have expected. Taylor, the ambassador, might as well have been speaking to that sense of anticlimax when he dryly said, near the end of his opening statement, "I recognize this is a rather lengthy recitation."

Daniel Arkin reported from New York, Mike Hixenbaugh from Houston, Anita Hassan reported from Las Vegas and Jon Schuppe from New Jersey.

Mike Hixenbaugh, Anita Hassan and Jon Schuppe contributed.