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More than 70 million watched TV coverage of Trump impeachment inquiry

Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20.
(Getty Images)

More than 70 million viewers watched some portion of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump, according to Nielsen data.

The hearings on whether Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine unless its government agreed to announce an investigation into his political opponents also pumped up viewing of the cable news channels. Both Fox News Channel and MSNBC saw significant year-over-year increases in audience levels for November. MSNBC’s daytime viewing levels for November were the highest in its 23-year history.

Viewing of live gavel-to-gavel coverage that aired on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and the three major broadcast networks peaked on its opening day, Nov. 13, when it reached an average of 13.1 million viewers. By the fifth session on Nov. 21, the audience leveled off to 11.3 million, comparable to what a top-rated non-sports entertainment program draws in prime time. Fox News was the most-watched network each day.

Impeachment hearings. A Democratic primary debate. Endless cable news chatter. The meeting of American politics and peak TV.

The figures reflect the average number of people who watched the coverage at any time. The total number of viewers who tuned in — determined by Nielsen as those who watched at least six minutes of coverage over five days — came in at 70.8 million. The number does not include C-SPAN or PBS stations that carried the coverage.

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The daytime impeachment hearings also gave a boost to cable news opinion shows in prime time. Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” averaged 3.4 million viewers in November, a record high for the program. “Hannity” also reached an all-time high with 3.6 million viewers. Fox News averaged 2.7 million viewers in prime time, up 15% from November 2018, a high-rated month that included coverage of the midterm elections. MSNBC was up 12% to 2.06 million viewers as “The Rachel Maddow Show” had its best month since January with an average of 3.3 million viewers. CNN was down 11% to 999,000 viewers.

Many more people also watched some portion of the impeachment hearings online, with all the networks citing a lift in traffic. NBC News counted 9.6 million video “starts” for impeachment coverage across its streaming platforms, which include Twitter and Facebook. CNN said digital viewing boosted its November audience by 3.4%, the largest lift the network has ever seen.

A comparison of the Trump inquiry to the impeachment hearings in the Watergate era of 1973 is tricky as they occurred when there were no cable news outlets or streaming. With a limited number of channels available, about 3 in 4 homes with TV in the U.S. watched one or more of the first 10 sessions of the inquiry into President Nixon.

Viewing levels increased when higher-profile members of the Nixon administration testified before Congress.

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The current impeachment inquiry moves to the House Judiciary Committee next week with hearings resuming Dec. 4.


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