Trump’s impeachment trial deemed not ready for prime time by television executives
The first night of arguments in favor of President Donald Trump’s impeachment before the U.S. Senate was judged not ready for prime time by many of the nation’s television executives.
ABC, CBS and NBC all stuck with regularly scheduled programs like “Chicago Med,” “Criminal Minds” and “Modern Family” Wednesday evening instead of showing the House managers’ evening session at the impeachment trial. That lasted about two hours, 15 minutes.
CNN and MSNBC carried the trial in full. Fox News Channel, after showing Rep. Adam Schiff speak for about a half hour, interrupted for a story about a child support case involving former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, and never returned.
Even two PBS stations in the New York area showed science programming and “Antiques Roadshow” instead of the trial Wednesday evening. PBS said it gave its local stations the option to show the trial or not.
The calls Wednesday night are significant because if the top networks decided not to pre-empt programming on the first full night the case against Trump was laid out, chances are they won’t reverse course later unless the unexpected happens.
Daytime was an intriguing contrast, since the top three broadcasters and cable news outlets all carried Schiff’s initial stand at the podium, which lasted more than two hours.
It was rare for anyone in today’s media world to command full television attention to that extent. The Senate’s rules for the trial, which required using a single camera on the speaker and didn’t allow reaction shots of senators, only served to accentuate Schiff’s message.
Meanwhile, Trump was setting a record for sending out the most tweets in a single day since he’s been president.
For the television networks, however, prime time is a different animal altogether, with more viewers and advertising revenue available.
After pulling away from House managers Wednesday evening, Fox News personalities spent much of their time ridiculing the proceedings. Fox mostly kept a postage stamp-size picture of the speaker soundlessly mouthing words in a corner of the screen, with an invitation for viewers to go online if they wanted to hear the arguments.
Fox’s Tucker Carlson ran clips of TV commentators on other network personalities who praised Schiff’s afternoon speech, calling the comments “pornographic.” He said Trump wasn’t the only victim of the impeachment trial — suggesting viewers were, too. He brought on a former Republican congressman to talk about alleged crimes in the Obama administration and Texas Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe to assess the trial.
“Today was really boring and the president’s defense team is very happy,” Ratcliffe said.
Carlson also interviewed Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, with the host saying Hawley had “stepped out of the trial” to talk on television and criticize House managers.
Similarly, Fox’s Sean Hannity labeled the impeachment trial the “Schumer Schiff Sham Show” and attacked Schiff for his afternoon speech.
“He is a lunatic,” Hannity said. “If you watched him talk he was totally unhinged. He looked like a lunatic who has lost his mind.”
Wrapping up his evening argument a half-hour later, Schiff also used the word “sham,” but in a much different context, as a description for Trump’s attempts to get the Ukraine to investigate the activities of Hunter Biden.
It wasn’t heard on Fox, however. At the time Hannity was interviewing lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a member of Trump’s impeachment defense team.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—The Chief Justice and impeachment: John Roberts’ role in the Trump trial
—How impeachment hearings in the Senate will work
—Understanding the 2020 election as brand marketing
—A Q&A with Sen. Kelly Loeffler on her unlikely path to Washington
—The World’s Most Admired Companies in 2020
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