In the 1960s, many of the Senators heard the anti-war slogan of “what if they held a war and nobody came?” This week, they finally learned the answer . . . at least in holding an impeachment. Senators have expressed surprise at the empty seats in the Senate gallery. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he was “really surprised . . . because this is kind of historic.” It is but the members are increasingly making history alone. Not only are spectators sparse, but the television audience has been declining to the point that, by the second day, the networks quickly switched over to shows in greater demand like The Young and The Restless. Nielson rating showed that the soaps were twice as popular as the trial.
The decision to switch back to the soaps was perhaps the most telling moment of the hearings. It was the judgment not of television executives but the public. While political junkies may find this quite riveting, hoi polloi in the hinterlands are clearly surfing elsewhere. The numbers speaks volumes. The TV ratings for the first days of the trial showed around 11 million viewers total. That is almost half of the viewers for the key hearings in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing. It is less than a third of the coverage of the midterm elections. It is roughly one-seventh of the 2016 election night coverage. Moreover there was almost a 30 percent drop to 8.9 million on the second day as people drifted back to regular programming. That is roughly the same number that tuned into Chicago Fire on NBC and a million less than the average audience of Jeopardy!
That leads to this Jeopardy question: “It was the most discussed and least watched historic event in modern times” The answer is the Trump impeachment. The more poignant question is why. While many insist that they are not out for ratings, the moves of both sides belie that notion. The House dragged out the clock to guarantee that the White House would have to open its case on Saturday, correctly described by Trump as the “Death Valley of TV.” The White House responded by effectively giving up one of its three days to give us a couple hours of argument to push the main argument to Monday and a bigger television audience. Trump is right about the Saturday slot, but there remains the question as to whether viewers would actually prefer to watch reruns of “Death Valley Days” than a day in the Death Valley of impeachment.
The most obvious answer is that the audience senses that this is really not a real trial but two separate informercials for the 2020 election. If this were a real trial, the two teams would actually be advancing arguments that could sway senators on the other side of the aisle. Instead, they are both doubling down on the rhetoric and narratives used for over a year. The House managers are calling Trump a “Dictator” and Republican Senators cringing sycophants involved in a “cover up.” The White House is insisting that everything the President did was “perfect” and trying Hunter Biden for corruption. There is no drama because, unlike the OJ Simpson trial, there is no question as to the outcome.
The second reason is that this is a drama where the audience only hears the lines they came to hear. It comes down to what Alfred Hitchcock’s observation that “television is exactly like a gun. Your enjoyment of it is determined by which end of it you’re on.” Like the Democratic and Republican senators who made clear how they would vote before the start, the country remains split down the middle on both Trump and the trial. Few Republicans had much interest in listening to the House for three days, and few Democrats have an interest in listening to the White House. Thus, it is not surprisingly that Fox ratings went up with the start of the defense case in the Senate. This is age of echo-journalism where people remain in silos of news and commentary. The trial is no different. For both those groups, they would prefer watching Days of Our Lives to Days of Their Lies.
Of course, there was a time when impeachment actually involved real trials. The trial of Andrew Johnson had dozens of witnesses. While the rage and partisanship was if anything greater in 1868, the trial itself was more substantive and deliberative. The Clinton trial abandoned that model at the insistence of Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) who opposed any witnesses and even wanted a summary vote without a trial. Only three depositions were allowed and then live testimony was blocked.
For viewers, the result is the equivalent to watching professional wrestling with the same fake matches but without the thrill of an occasional pile driver. If the two teams are going to pretend to have a match, Schiff could at least pretend to hit Sekulow with a chair. The game – and ratings – changer may be the chance of witnesses which increased with the leaking of the material from the book of John Bolton. While a Bolton appearance might “jump the shark” like Happy Days, it would add precisely what is missing in his ratings flop: drama.
The size of the viewing audience should not matter, but it does because there is no real effort to try this case to a verdict. The arguments are tailored for public consumption, not jury deliberation. Edward R. Morrow once noted that “If we were to do the Second Coming of Christ in color for a full hour, there would be a considerable number of stations which would decline to carry it on the grounds that a Western or a quiz show would be more profitable.” This is not the Second Coming. It is more like the hundredth retelling the same scripted narrative. That is why viewers prefer to see how Pamela on The Bold and the Beautiful is going to kill Donna in the cabin while a bear is circling outside. Why? Because they do not know who will win: Pamela, Donna, or the bear. Now that is a drama.