Fox News was the leading TV source for the dramatic daylong Senate testimony of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his sexual assault accuser, Palo Alto professor Christine Blasey Ford, that transfixed the nation Thursday.
Fox News coverage of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was watched by an average of 5.7 million viewers from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern time, more than MSNBC (2.9 million) and CNN (2.5 million) combined, according to Nielsen data.
The cable news audience was 161% higher than what the channels had been drawing during daytime hours in September. The 7.5 million viewers watching Fox News coverage between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. was larger than Thursday’s prime-time season premiere of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and the heavily publicized debut of “Murphy Brown” on CBS.
The movement of the audience levels on cable news reflected the current deep political divide, as Ford’s testimony had the potential to derail President Trump’s nominee, who has the support of nearly all of the Republican members of the Senate.
The hearing, which will go down in history as another defining moment in the #MeToo movement, also aired on broadcast networks ABC, which had 3.3 million viewers, CBS (3.1 million) and NBC (2.9 million).
The total six-network TV audience of 20.4 million viewers did not approach the number who watched the October 1991 testimony of Clarence Thomas and his sexual harassment accuser, Anita Hill, in a far less fragmented TV landscape. That hearing over two days averaged 20.8 million households, many of which had more than one viewer.
But viewing via online streaming platforms probably added significantly to the overall tally of people who tuned in to watch Kavanaugh and Ford testify.
The total TV audience was comparable to the 19.5 million viewers who watched fired FBI Director James B. Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, 2017. But coverage of that hearing was half as long as the proceedings on Thursday.
Fox News, where Kavanaugh has had strong support from conservative prime-time commentators such as Sean Hannity, saw its viewership surge in the afternoon, when the nominee appeared before the committee.
Ford’s testimony was watched by 4.7 million viewers on Fox News from 10:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Eastern time, climbing to 7.2 million viewers during Kavanaugh’s time from 3:15 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. Eastern time. The increase also reflects the fact that there were more people at home to watch television in the late afternoon and early evening, as well as building interest in the story throughout the day.
The hearing opened Thursday with Ford giving her riveting account of how Kavanaugh allegedly sexually assaulted her at a high school party when he was 17 and she was 15. Kavanaugh angrily denied her allegations in the afternoon.
While Trump and Kavanaugh supporters were more likely to tune in to Fox News, the channel’s anchors and commentators were generally evenhanded in their depiction of the proceedings. After the first portion of the hearing in which Ford credibly delivered her recollection of the alleged incident from 36 years ago, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s early take was that her testimony was “a disaster for the Republicans” who supported Kavanaugh. The channel’s legal analyst, Andrew Napolitano, delivered a similar analysis.
(Fox News did fire a contributor, Kevin Jackson, for inappropriate remarks he made about Kavanaugh’s accusers on Twitter. He was not part of their coverage on Thursday.)
The tide appeared to turn for Kavanaugh in the afternoon, when he delivered an aggressive and emotional denial of Ford’s account and bashed the Democratic committee members who opposed his appointment.
While there is no official tally of online viewing, several news outlets said their streaming services hit their highest levels of 2018. Fox News said 3 million online users started streaming coverage throughout the testimony. CNN said 8.2 million started streaming its coverage on its online platform and nearly 2 million more on Facebook and YouTube. The network said a majority of the streaming audience watched on mobile devices.