Jan. 6 committee gets a prime-time spotlight. Will people watch?

A masked protester carries a red flag that says "Trump Nation" in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
A masked rioter carries a red flag that says “Trump Nation” in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

After 16 months, the congressional investigation into the 2021 insurrection at the Capitol gets the Watergate hearings treatment.

It’s showtime for the Jan. 6 House select committee.

For the past year, the group has been hearing testimony on the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the involvement of then-President Donald Trump as an alleged instigator determined to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

On Thursday, the findings will get a prime-time TV platform, a rarity for such proceedings, with three broadcast networks, the Fox-owned TV stations, several cable networks and a myriad of streaming outlets presenting the opening hours.

Even the Watergate hearings in 1973 rarely got a prime-time platform. ABC, CBS and NBC rotated daytime coverage in response to viewer complaints that their soap operas and game shows were being preempted. Only the then-nascent noncommercial PBS provided gavel-to-gavel coverage.

The current TV landscape has little resemblance to the bygone era when a few networks could command a vast majority of the nation’s attention. But even in the splintered TV landscape — in a nation that has rarely been so politically divided — the decision to put the opening of the hearings in primetime where they can potentially get upward of 20 million viewers is meaningful.

“To get prime-time coverage is a truly extraordinary statement,” said Tom Bettag, a veteran news producer and lecturer at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “I think the committee would have to demonstrate to the networks that they are going to present things that people don’t know and are significant,”

Bettag noted that even the White House has to make its case to get a network prime-time slot for a presidential address. TV news executives confirmed that that was the case with the Jan. 6 committee but they did not have many details on what is was offering as of Wednesday.

“We have a sense there will be new video and testimony from people who were there,” said Janelle Rodriguez, senior vice president, editorial for NBC News. “Ultimately, it’s a public service to offer this in real time.”

CBS News’ Washington bureau chief, Mark Lima, said he expects the prime-time presentation to run around 90 minutes and look more like a TV show than a long, dry recitation of testimony. But there is no doubt of its newsworthiness.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta warned Thursday that last January’s events in Washington, and the investigation that continues to...

“I think our inclination is [that] Jan. 6 was an important moment in our country’s history,” he said. “The reckoning with that is important, and in the end, we thought this was in the interest of the public to air it.”

The committee has enlisted James Goldston, the former president of ABC News, where he kept his news programs first in the ratings, to produce the presentation and make it look more like a TV show rather than a dry recitation of testimony.

“He knows how to make good television,” Lima said. “He has a track record of that.”

But reflective of the partisan and polarized era viewers are living in, the most-watched cable news channel won’t carry the prime-time event live.

Fox News is sticking with its conservative opinion hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern to satisfy its rabid core viewers that tune in every night for their rhetoric; they have been sharply critical of the committee’s activities, which they regularly describe as a witch hunt.

Members of the National Guard sleep in the halls of the Capitol
Members of the National Guard sleep in the halls of the Capitol before the House convened to impeach President Donald Trump a week after the Jan. 6 insurrection.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

In recent years, Fox News has resisted preempting its high-rated prime-time programs. It has carried testimony from former FBI Director James Comey and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, but those were during daytime hours, when fewer people are available to watch.

Although viewers will have plenty of other options for hearing coverage, the absence of Fox News could reduce the overall audience for opening night, as it typically has the most viewers of any network when covering an election, State of the Union address or other major special events that run across multiple outlets.

Bettag believes Fox News would not have been the first stop for viewers interested in coverage and does not expect it to have a major effect on the ratings.

“It’s predictable that they are not carrying, and I don’t think it’s a big part of the equation,” Bettag said. “There is plenty of access from everybody else.”

What is likely is that the three Fox News stars will cite the coverage on other networks — and the involvement of Goldston — to assert that the “mainstream media” are in cahoots with the Democratic Party to damage Trump.

Hannity has called the committee’s efforts “a sham investigation” and describes the Jan. 6 insurrection as an “incursion.” Carlson produced a special for the channel’s streaming service that suggested a baseless claim that the FBI was involved in provoking the attack on the Capitol.

Having a powerful channel that disputes the committee’s findings could have an influence on public perception over the long haul. In a recent interview with The Times, star Watergate witness John Dean said it’s likely that then-President Nixon could have survived his scandal and served out his term if a Fox News had existed in the 1970s.

Bettag believes the response to the Jan. 6 hearings will likely be a mirror of the country’s current political schism.

“A lot of people will watch it really closely and think it’s the most riveting thing in the world, and a lot will say this is a waste of time,” he said. “It will show the country’s division again.”

Fox News Media is offering live coverage on the Fox Business Networks with news anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum. The company’s sister channel is available in 73 million pay-TV homes but it does not have anything close to the audience the of the flagship. Fox is airing the coverage on most of its owned broadcast TV stations nationwide.

The coverage will also stream on FoxNews.com, LiveNOW from Fox and Fox Soul, which are available on free streaming platforms such as Tubi, Pluto TV and YouTube. Baier and MacCallum will also provide recaps and analysis on Fox News after Ingraham’s program.

After opening night, extensive hearing coverage will start Monday on cable news and various streaming services. NBC News Now will provide continuing coverage, separate from the progressive-leaning MSNBC. CBS News Streaming will also have a dedicated feed for the hearings in addition to coverage with its Washington journalists. ABC News Live and NewsNation will stream the hearing as well.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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