The impeachment hearings might be considered a circus by many, but they’re certainly not the Greatest Show on Earth. How can this be stated so emphatically? Nielsen ratings for the first week reveal the limbo effect: that is, how low can you go? The answer appears to be very.
Watergate, It’s Not
Back in June of 1973, when Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean sidled up to the hearing table before the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, the American people flocked to their television sets in record numbers. Estimates are that 80% tuned in to watch the political festivities. Viewers were lashed to their TV sets for days – seemingly glued to the drama of it all.
Then there was the sordid tale of the Bill Clinton impeachment. While viewership paled in comparison to Watergate’s, Clinton at least came in with respectable numbers. An estimated 22.5 million watched the president’s taped testimony in 1998. Not Watergate stuff, but still drawing a crowd.
Fast-forward to last week, and the Nielsen company, whose stock-in-trade is the business of assessing TV ratings, revealed a paltry 13 million people tuned in to the Donald Trump impeachment hearings – and that was on day one, when you would expect viewership to be at its peak. Put in perspective, there are an estimated 304.5 million TV sets in America today, which means that a little more than 4% of the population watched the hearings.
In Nielsen-speak, this is a giant ho-hum.
The argument has surfaced that one cannot compare viewership of Watergate to the current hearings because, in 1973, people didn’t have the option of watching online. Thus, we are not comparing apples to apples. Fair enough. So, let’s evaluate the Trump hearing ratings and weigh them against a few recent political sideshows.
When Christine Blasey Ford testified in the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings, 20 million people watched. The James Comey Show, back in June of 2017, drew 19.6 million viewers. Then the Michael Cohen Variety Program brought in a decent audience of 16 million. YouTube, Facebook, and other online platforms certainly existed for all three of these made-for-TV shows. Case closed.
Aggregate numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. It would be reasonable to ask who these 13 million or so viewers are. This is where it gets interesting. Fox News viewership was the highest, averaging 2.9 million viewers. In primetime, Sean Hannity’s show came in first, with 4.4 million viewers, and Tucker Carlson’s at 3.9 million was a close second. One can safely assume that those watching these programs lean conservative. All this to say that Republicans appear to be more interested in the impeachment hearings than Democrats.
Bored or Just Not Buying It?
In journalism, there is something called man-on-the-street interviews. This is a technique whereby a reporter shoves a microphone in front of an ordinary citizen and asks a question. Even before the Nielsens were published, it seemed as though Americans were not riveted by the testimonies of acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor or senior State Department official George Kent. One must wonder how many Americans could even locate Ukraine on a map. This is not to imply citizens are stupid as much as to say that by the time they trot little Billy off to school, go to work, pick up the groceries, and microwave dinner, Rokuing Blue Bloods is more enticing than a couple of suits talking about Ukraine.
Will this lackluster ratings performance spell doom for the Trump impeachment hearings? How long are the Democrats willing to go on with something that Americans are actively – and in great numbers –tuning out. In TV-land, a ratings dud spells only one thing: It’s time to cancel the show.
Despite all the vitriol about a constitutional crisis, Democrats on Capitol Hill would do well to pay attention to what their constituents are telling them.
Not interested. Not interested. Not interested.
Read more from Leesa K. Donner.