Within the Senate chamber, lawmakers were doing their best to endure the long hours of the Trump impeachment trial’s first two days, bringing crossword puzzles, falling asleep, and flaunting the no-electronics rule by communicating on smartwatches. At home, Americans haven’t sought these distractions, because the public is just not tuning in.
According to TV ratings for the first two days of the trial, the six news networks covering Trump’s impeachment averaged a little over 11 million viewers combined, with Fox News leading the pack with some 2,654,000 on their channel from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Viewership dropped by about 20 percent on Wednesday, with a total of 8,858,000 million watching; MSNBC led day two with 1,793,000 tuning in.
Compared to other televised political moments of historical importance, it’s a fairly weak showing. In 2018, the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh drew an audience of 20.4 million on the six broadcast networks. In 2018, the midterms also pulled in a substantial 36.1 million, a greater audience than the four previous midterms. And though it may not be totally fair to compare the impeachment trial to the last presidential election, the 2016 motherlode event drew an audience of 71 million.
Perhaps a more telling comparison can be found on the news networks’ coverage on the same days as the trial. According to Nielsen data, Sean Hannity drew 4,246,000 million viewers — double the network’s daytime impeachment audience — leading an impressive Wednesday on Fox News, with Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson bringing in 3.93 million and 3.73 million respectively. At MSNBC, Rachel Maddow also delivered with 2.99 million viewers — over 1 million more than the daytime showing for the impeachment trial.
There are reasons for the underwhelming performance thus far: Day one was a 13-hour event, full of slow procedures that set the terms for the remainder of the trial. The Nielsen data also doesn’t account for online streaming: Impeachment viewers may be more likely to check in periodically on a C-SPAN stream throughout the day, rather than November audiences glued to a night of gripping election coverage on TV. As for Maddow and Hannity’s strong numbers, the hosts almost certainly benefitted from viewers looking for their politically preferred recap. And unlike recent election specials, the ultimate result of the impeachment show is already decided, barring the total dissolution of Mitch McConnell’s political will.
But the 20 percent dip in daytime viewership may be the best indicator that Trump’s impeachment won’t be must-see TV in its remaining week or so. (That CNN’s daytime and primetime Tuesday audiences were almost identical to those of the Clinton impeachment’s first day isn’t promising either.) If witnesses are called, however, there could be a late-trial boost, courtesy of former national security adviser John Bolton.