NEW YORK— America’s top television networks on Thursday turned prime time over to a gripping account of former President Donald Trump’s actions during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol — with one prominent exception.
The top-rated news network, Fox News Channel, stuck with its own lineup of commentators. Sean Hannity denounced the “show trial” elsewhere on TV just as he was featured in it, with the House’s Jan. 6 committee examining his tweets to Trump administration figures.
Hannity aired a soundless snippet of committee members entering the hearing room as part of a lengthy monologue condemning the proceedings.
That was all Fox News Channel viewers saw of the hearing.
“It’s really just a cheap, selectively edited political ad,” Hannity told his viewers.
Meanwhile, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN and MSNBC aired the second prime-time hearing, focusing on Trump’s real-time response to the riot. The committee said it was the last hearing until September.
“This very much sounded like a closing argument, certainly of this chapter of their investigation, and it was profound,” ABC News anchor David Muir said.
About 20 million people watched the first prime-time hearing on June 9, the Nielsen Company said. Generally, reaching that big an audience in mid-July would be a long shot, as it is the least-watched television month of the year.
Yet the seven daytime hearings have proven something of an oddity. Buoyed by strong word-of-mouth, the hearings grew in audience as they went along. CNN, for example, reached 1.5 million people for the second daytime hearing on June 16, and 2.6 million for the last one on June 12, Nielsen said.
Fox’s broadcast station in New York, which did not air last month’s prime-time hearing, showed the Thursday night session.
There’s little interest at Fox News Channel, which televised the daytime hearings, although only up until the demarcation line of the network’s popular show “The Five.” Ratings show that roughly half the network’s audience flees when the hearings start, and return when they’re over.
That would be a much more serious problem in prime time, where Fox’s audience is more than double what it is during the day. Fox News Channel’s decision not to air the prime-time hearings is almost certainly a function of the demands of their audience and prime-time hosts, said Nicole Hemmer, an expert on conservative media and author of the upcoming book “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.”
“It creates an awkward situation when a host like Tucker Carlson tells his audience that the hearings are a debacle not worth their time, and then the network preempts his show to air them,” Hemmer said.
Carlson found plenty of things to talk about besides the hearing Thursday, including President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 diagnosis, a “meltdown” by liberals over the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision, the failure of drug legalization, “climate crazies” and “trans-affirming” lessons in Los Angeles schools.
Hannity’s lead story was the “grand finale” of the Jan. 6 committee, although he didn’t show it — at least with the sound on.
He brought on guests like GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, who said that if the hearings have done anything, “they’ve exonerated President Trump and the people supporting him.”
Talk show host Mark Levin told Hannity the U.S. Justice Department is corrupt because “the Colbert 9 are roaming free.” That’s a reference to federal prosecutors’ decision not to bring charges against nine people associated with CBS’ “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” who were arrested in a U.S. Capitol complex building last month.
While Hannity was on the air, the Jan. 6 committee showed tweets that Hannity and other Fox News personalities had sent to Trump administration officials, warning that the Capitol riot was making the president look bad.
In a closing statement, Rep. Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice chair, noted that most of its case against Trump has been made by Republicans. She ridiculed the notion that the committee’s findings would be much different if Republicans other than she and Rep. Adam Kinzinger were members.
“Do you really think that Bill Barr is such a delicate flower that he would wilt under cross-examination?” she said.
The Republicans watching Fox News Channel on Thursday night didn’t hear her.