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Analyzing the television ratings for the first hearing on the Jan. 6 insurrection


The House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol is back with another hearing this morning. Key witness Bill Stepien was the campaign manager for former President Trump. He was supposed to appear but will not today because of a, quote, "family emergency." NPR learned that his wife went into labor. So Stepien's counsel will appear and make a statement instead. The panel is trying to shed new light on former President Donald Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The first televised hearing on Thursday night attracted about 20 million people. They tuned in to 11 different networks, including three broadcast networks and cable channels including CNN, MSNBC and Fox Business Network. Earlier, I talked with NPR TV critic Eric Deggans about this particular metric for measuring public interest in the hearings.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It is a pretty significant audience. I know there are some naysayers out there who try to compare these numbers unfavorably to other TV events, like Biden's last State of the Union address, which drew 38 million viewers. But for a congressional committee presentation, these were pretty solid numbers, indicating a wide array of people were interested in this material. And it's worth noting that these figures don't include online viewership. They don't include viewership on C-SPAN or even the audience for NPR's broadcast of the hearing, which was carried on member stations nationwide.

MARTIN: OK, so let's dig into the numbers a little bit. Was there anything that struck you when you looked at a more detailed analysis of the viewership?

DEGGANS: Well, one thing that jumped out at me was that just over 15 million of those 20 million viewers were age 55 or older, according to Nielsen. Now, that's to be expected because younger viewers watch traditional TV outlets a bit less and are more likely to consume this information online, maybe through clips on YouTube, TikTok or Twitter. And it was interesting that MSNBC, which features a lot of liberal-oriented pundits, got the highest ratings among the major cable channels with 4.3 million viewers.

MARTIN: Fox News didn't air continuous coverage of the hearings. Did that end up affecting their overall ratings that night? Do we know?

DEGGANS: Well, I mean, it seems possible. Fox News star Tucker Carlson, for example, drew over 3 million viewers on Thursday, which was about average for him. On his show, Carlson showed visual images of the hearing, but he spent a lot of his show talking to guests who criticized the proceeding and tried to undermine its significance. And, you know, he had no commercials to discourage his fans from changing the channel. But I think when you look at these viewership numbers, they suggest that there were a lot of people out there who just wanted to see what the committee was presenting.

Now, in the market where I live, in Florida - Tampa, St. Petersburg - the local Fox broadcast affiliate carried the coverage from Fox Business. So it was even possible for Fox fans to see continuous coverage of the hearing on their local Fox broadcast station in some markets.

MARTIN: So the second public hearing from the January 6 Committee is happening today - this morning, in fact. I mean, even if roughly the same number of networks carry it, it's not going to get nearly the viewership of the hearing in prime time, right?

DEGGANS: No, we won't see the same audience numbers. The TV audience is dramatically smaller during daytime, which is probably why the committee began their public hearings with a prime-time presentation in the first place. I mean, it's when more viewers are available, and it sends a message of importance when prime-time entertainment shows are preempted.

Now, I do think the committee did a good job of formatting their presentation to make for a compelling prime-time presentation. It was produced not just for the prime-time audience but for journalists and pundits and commentators who could take pieces of that material and then talk about it on other platforms. So we'll see if they can continue that approach to draw attention to daytime hearings, which will likely draw a little less viewership and maybe a little less overall attention.

MARTIN: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.