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Entertainment & Arts

Column: Disney+ launched the same week as the impeachment hearings. Coincidence or distraction?

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George Kent, left, is sworn in to testify during impeachment hearings in Washington. Disney+ offers an alternative with its Mandalorian series.
(Associated Press/left; Lucasfilm/right)

I don’t think Bob Iger and Walt Disney Co. intended to damage democracy by launching Disney+ this week. Rattle Netflix, sure; colonize the digital landscape, absolutely; ask if you want the credit card you use to register for your free month of Disney+ to be saved for all Walt Disney companies, you bet.

But with the possible exception of anti-trust laws, Anaheim-related tax breaks and any press coverage it considers unfairly critical, Disney appears to be at peace with democracy as a concept.

Unfortunately, and no doubt accidentally, the launch of Disney’s new media platform coincided with the beginning of televised hearings regarding the impeachment inquiry against President Trump.

Ten million households immediately signed up for Disney+. I sincerely hope that doesn’t mean that 10 million households were more interested in watching the new Star Wars series “The Mandalorian” or classic and live-action versions of “Lady and the Tramp” than testimony investigating the charge that Trump attempted to bribe the president of Ukraine into publicly launching an investigation into his very possible 2020 election opponent Joe Biden and whether or not this is an impeachable offense.

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But it could.

And frankly, who would blame them? The term “congressional hearing” has the unique quality of being both a soporific and an irritant, unlike that scene where Lady and the Tramp eat the same string of spaghetti and smooch, which is still fabulous on every level. And, as my colleague Lorraine Ali recently observed, talk of impeaching Trump has gone on so long that many people were sick of the hearings before they even began.

Still, according to Gallup, 71% of Americans watched the Watergate hearings (testimony in the Clinton impeachment hearings was not televised, although the Senate trial was, though more than 20 million people read the Starr report online immediately after it appeared, crashing the still-nascent internet), a percentage it is difficult to imagine the Ukraine-gate hearings will match.

Thirteen million watched coverage of Wednesday’s opening testimony of the Ukraine-gate hearings on cable and broadcast news outlets — 2 million more than tuned in for the Country Music Awards show on ABC that evening, but slightly more than half the number that had watched “Sunday Night Football” this week and nowhere near 71% of Americans.

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That gap is caused not by boredom, or incendiary political divisions, or even disinterest. That gap is caused by Disney+.

And, yes, Apple TV+ and Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and Hulu, the cable and broadcast networks and, for those of us still using one, the DVR queue filled to overflowing.

In other words, all the television, clamoring for our attention, exhausting our eyeballs, taking us through Fire TV wormholes that cross platforms and span centuries and when did “Call the Midwife” get eight seasons?

The Watergate hearings were the first televised impeachment inquiry in the history of the nation, but that’s not what made them must-see TV. Everyone watched them because they were the only thing on. Everywhere, all the time. The “must-see” was literal. There was no streaming, no cable, no YouTube; hell, you couldn’t even watch a movie on VHS yet.

If you wanted to watch television in the spring and summer of 1973, you were going to watch the Watergate hearings whether the best part — Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) — was playing or not.

(And if you were, as I was, a child who just wanted to exercise her God-given right to see a few cartoons instead of all these boring guys talking all the time, you were also going to complain about this fact. A lot.)

The Trump impeachment inquiry is also everywhere, and also, through the miracles of streaming, YouTube and 24-hour news television, available all the time. But it is very far from the only thing on because “on” no longer means what it did in 1973. “On” no longer means much of anything, in the national or even collective sense, as fewer and fewer people watch even live events in their scheduled time slot.

In 2019, 71% of Americans are not going to watch anything at the same time, not even (gasp) the Super Bowl.

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Obviously, “at the same time” does not mean “at all.” Thirteen million is not great for an important live event when you consider that the same number of people watched the first airing of “The Game of Thrones” finale and that was on HBO, which you have to pay for. But no doubt many millions more watched, if not the entire hearing, then at least some of it, via websites and social media, on their phones and personal devices.

At least I hope so.

Because as boring or predictable or [insert preferred descriptor here] as congressional hearings may be, they are very important. To everyone. At a time when many, including the president, deride the news media for bias, a televised hearing is, if nothing else, as purely objective as news gets. The only shouting and politicizing being done is by the newsmakers themselves — neither Rachel Maddow nor Sean Hannity is in the room.

Without the trappings of commentary or even the necessities of editing and story choice, televised hearings are the definition of simply presenting the news, which is precisely what so many Americans say they want.

But ..."The Mandalorian”!

Enjoy it. Enjoy Disney+ and Apple TV+, enjoy all the pluses and all the television. It is endlessly entertaining, provocative, soothing, educational, inspiring and comfortable, and it still connects us. But watch all the hearings, too. Because you can, with ease, and you should. We can argue all day about the comparative importance of popular culture versus the political system, but for democracy to work, we need to pay attention to what’s happening as it happens. And then decide what should happen next.


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