WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial of President Donald Trump couldn’t have higher stakes, but as an historic two-week-long televised event, it has been something of a ratings bust.
The third impeachment trial in the history of the United States Senate hasn’t come close to toppling viewership records, according to the Nielsen rating agency.
So far, the live coverage of President Trump’s Senate impeachment hearings has garnered fewer television viewers than the audiences that tuned in to see other historic congressional hearings, including appearances by James Comey, Brett Kavanaugh, Michael Cohen and Robert Mueller.
Ho-hum Nielsen numbers
The first day of the Senate’s trial, Jan. 21, was seen by 11 million Americans who tuned in to watch prolonged sparring by Democrats and Republicans over the rules that would govern the rest of the trial.
When Democratic House managers began making their case for impeachment the next day, the number of viewers fell to 8.9 million. And that trend continued when the third and fourth days of the Democrats’ presentation garnered only 7.8 and 6.8 million viewers, respectively.
There was a slight jump in viewership when President Trump’s legal team began making their case for acquittal last Saturday, when 10.1 million Americans tuned in.
Nielsen’s numbers do not include people who view the live coverage streamed online or via social media, which could be substantial. Additionally, its numbers do not reflect those watching the impeachment trial on a nonprofit cable channel, C-Span.
Washington Times op-ed writer Tiana Lowe called the impeachment hearings a “ratings dud,” noting that it is pulling in an average of a million fewer viewers than watch the popular American quiz show “Jeopardy” on a nightly basis.
State of avoidance
University of Illinois journalism professor Nikki Usher told Voice of America: “People have entered a state of avoidance. They just can’t hear any more. And that’s something we worry about.” She believes Americans might feel overwhelmed by the gavel-to-gavel coverage of so many recent high-profile congressional hearings.
About 19.5 million Americans watched former FBI Director James Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 2017, coverage broadcast live on 10 television networks.
The highest ratings for a recent congressional hearing came in September 2018, when 21 million Americans tuned in to see U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh answer allegations of sexual misconduct before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The testimony of Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former fixer and attorney, before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform in February 2019, drew 13.8 million viewers by comparison.
Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s appearance before the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees in July 2019 garnered 12.9 million viewers.
Usher believes people don’t watch when they know the outcome. From the outset of impeachment proceedings late last year, conventional wisdom held that Trump would be acquitted in the Senate.
“It’s like tuning in to watch a movie when you know what the ending is,” Usher said, calling the impeachment proceedings a “low fireworks televised event.”