The first day of the Senate trial of President Donald Trump on impeachment charges proved to be a modest hit on television, with an average of 11 million viewers tuning in during the afternoon hours and more than 7.5 million sticking around to watch on cable news during the evening on Tuesday.
The marathon procedural session was carried on the six leading broadcast and cable networks during the daytime. The broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) switched to regular entertainment programming in the evening, ceding the coverage to Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.
An average of 11.01 million viewers watched the proceedings between 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern time, across the six networks, according to Nielsen Media Research. The audience fell to an average of 7.55 million during prime-time hours (8-11 p.m.) when the trial was carried only on cable. (Nielsen doesn’t include viewers who watched outside the home or streamed online. They also don’t include viewership for PBS and C-SPAN.)
Still, the prime-time total was well above the audience that the cable news networks normally attract, typically around 5 million per night. Viewing was strongest between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., when 8.1 million were watching Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. In contrast, the night’s most popular program — “NCIS” on CBS — had 11.23 million viewers.
For further perspective: the first day of the House impeachment hearings in November drew an average of 13.1 million viewers on the six networks. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress in July attracted 12.97 million.
The big TV winner was Fox, which led all networks during late afternoon and prime time on Tuesday. Its audience peaked at 3.8 million between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.
The relatively strong audience interest belied comments from some Trump supporters that the coverage — which relied primarily on static cameras controlled by the Senate — was “boring.”
“It was unbelievably boring,” said Steve Doocy, co-host of “Fox and Friends,” during the Wednesday morning broadcast. “I don’t know how people can follow it.”
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said Wednesday that most voters aren’t paying attention.
“They just see this as theater, and it’s boring,” Parscale said during an appearance on Fox News. “It’s like watching paint dry.”
He added, “I can choose 9,000 TV channels, Netflix or Amazon, or I can watch the impeachment. I couldn’t even watch it last night, and I’m paid to do it.”
In fact, more people watched the first day of the trial against Trump in prime time than did the first day of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999, according to Nielsen. The 2020 trial attracted 7.5 million viewers during 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. In 1999, 2.3 million tuned in. (MSNBC and Fox, both founded in 1996, weren’t as widely distributed in 1999 as they are now.)
During Tuesday’s session, Republicans voted against repeated Democratic efforts to subpoena documents and witnesses that Democrats argued would help prove that Trump abused the powers of the presidency when he asked Ukraine for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his Democratic campaign rivals.
After hours of debate, the Senate adopted ground rules for the trial in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Decisions about witnesses will be delayed until both sides make their presentations and senators have a chance to submit written questions.