Like everything else related to President Trump, the impeachment inquiry into his request that the Ukraine government investigate his top Democratic 2020 presidential rival Joe Biden is set to become a major television event.
Cable news and broadcast networks are currently in the planning stages of how to cover what could be hundreds of hours of live testimony and floor debates if Congress formally votes for an impeachment investigation of the president’s actions. If history is any guide, the proceedings could have a lasting impact on how viewers consume their news.
“This will be the first impeachment inquiry of the digital age,” said CNN Washington Bureau Chief and Senior Vice President Sam Feist. “It’s a very different media environment. Each era brings a different type of coverage.”
When the impeachment inquiry into the Watergate scandal that ultimately ended Richard Nixon’s presidency commenced in 1973, the country only had three TV networks — ABC, NBC and CBS. In an unprecedented move, they agreed to rotate live daytime coverage of the first wave of impeachment hearings.
The arrangement aimed to placate viewers who still wanted to see the game shows and soap operas that saturated daytime network schedules at the time. The networks were also looking to stem net losses of nearly $3 million a day in 2019 dollars that they faced with preempting entertainment shows.
But TV executives were surprised when a majority of viewers tuned into the hearings. The story also created a new generation of TV news stars such as CBS’ Dan Rather and NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who became dominant figures at their networks over the next two decades.
The Watergate hearings also gave a major boost to PBS, as its member stations carried tape delay coverage in prime time. The nonprofit outlets ended up using the hearings as a fundraising tool.
The 1998 impeachment case against President Clinton came amid the rise of cable news. CNN was entrenched as the go-to place for continuous coverage while Fox News and MSNBC were still in their nascent days.
But both newcomers saw gains at the time, especially Fox News, which attracted viewers who wanted a conservative alternative to the established news outlets. Fox News eventually became the most watched cable news outlet by 2002, a status it has held ever since.
In 2019, viewers will have greater access to live coverage of the impeachment hearings than ever before. Cable subscribers will be able to stream Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and the nonprofit service C-SPAN on their laptops or phones during the day.
All three broadcast network news divisions now have free, over-the-top streaming services (CBSN, NBC News Now and ABC News Live), which will also carry continuous coverage of congressional committee hearings open to the public and breaking developments. Other streaming platforms are also expected to offer live feeds of pivotal moments.
The broadcast networks are likely to pick their spots as to what they will present to TV viewers.
CBS News Washington bureau chief Chris Isham said the broadcast network will carry gavel-to-gavel coverage if high-profile witnesses such as Atty. Gen. Bill Barr, Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani or the government whistleblower agree to testify in a public session. He does not expect any major hearings to occur until November.
“What we don’t put on the network we’ll certainly be carrying on CBSN,” Isham said.
ABC, CBS and NBC have already devoted a significant number of daytime hours to show high-interest congressional hearings related to the Trump presidency, including appearances by former FBI Director James Comey and Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen. Such “roadblock” coverage across the networks can drive the average audience level up for such events up to 20 million viewers.
Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, said while cable news is the day-to-day driver of the impeachment story, broadcast network TV exposure still has the power to elevate its importance in the public’s consciousness.
“A lot of this is confined to the cable news sphere and while that is a big and growing audience, it is largely a politically interested audience,” Lukasiewicz said. “I think that changes when the broadcast networks bring their audiences to bear, particularly when you get into a roadblocking situation and all the networks are showing the same thing at the same time. It does make a statement.”
But the impeachment inquiry story is already pushing a tsunami of news out during the day that will show up on digital platforms, according to Feist. “It’s not just the televised image; it’s also the real-time reporting,” he said. “CNN’s digital team is reporting out details about the inquiry every hour of every day and working without a newsgathering team. So we’re learning a lot about it in real time even outside of televised hearings.”
Feist added that Trump, who presents his case on Twitter and in daily exchanges with the media, affects the coverage in an unpredictable way, a major departure from previous presidents subjected to such inquiries.
“You’re hearing from the central figure of this impeachment inquiry every day,” Feist said. “It’s an interesting factor.”
Trump continues to be the gift that keeps on giving to cable news. After year-to-year audience declines in the first few months of 2019, viewing levels at Fox News, CNN and MSNBC are now all running ahead of 2018.
The current polarization of cable news in prime time could also reach new heights as the impeachment battle brews.
While Fox News Washington correspondents and daytime anchors such as Shepard Smith have delivered straight-ahead coverage of the White House crisis during the day, opinion hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and their Trump-supporting guests have been dismissive of charges against Trump, calling it a partisan witch hunt by Democrats.
Lukasiewicz believes the views expressed on Fox News opinion programs could become a factor in the direction of impeachment proceedings if they involve the Republican majority in the Senate.
“There is no question that some people who appear on Fox News in prime time do so to get the attention of the president of the United States,” Lukasiewicz said. “If push comes to shove down the road in an impeachment trial, those voices probably are going to have some influence as some Republican senators consider their votes if it becomes a close decision for any of them.”
If the impeachment story escalates, there is also potential for historic viewing levels. Nixon’s 1974 resignation was watched by 60.3% of all U.S. homes with television according to Nielsen, and had an estimated audience of 110 million viewers, which at the time was only topped by the 125 million viewers who watched the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.
But in 1998, viewer interest in the Clinton impeachment hearings — which led to an acquittal in a Senate trial — faded over time, as many people in the country were turned off by the idea of a president being removed from office for lying under oath about his personal behavior. More viewers watched an NFL game between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills on CBS then the Senate vote on impeachment on the other networks combined.
Still, TV news operations in Washington say they are energized by the current, which will put the spotlight on their congressional and State Department correspondents during a history-making period.
“It’s not always great fun for the nation to go through this,” said Bryan Boughton, senior vice president of the Fox News Washington bureau. “But if you want to be in the front row and watch things unfold, this is the job you want to be in.”