Everybody mocked the media last week for asking if the impeachment hearings were loaded with enough “pizzazz” to keep the public watching. “Saturday Night Live” created a faux soap opera to show what a real impeachment drama would look like. A New York Times op-ed chastised the public for expecting the kind of entertainment fix we usually get from “The Bachelor” and “Young Sheldon.” This, after all, is serious stuff.
But both the doubters and the high-minded critics are getting it all wrong. First, as far as ratings go, the impeachment hearings are a hit — not as big as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, but much more popular than the soap operas and talk shows that usually air midday. And, second, the flashy trappings of cable news and middlebrow network TV are entirely the wrong frameworks for comparison. In fact, the drama at the center of the impeachment hearings resembles something deeper, often darker: the nuanced, serialized, complicated shows of today’s Golden Age of Television. The ratings suggest that viewers get it, even if the critics don’t.
These day-long impeachment sessions, with their drawn-out retellings of the bureaucratic process, have felt like the polar opposite of a dizzying Trump news cycle: a long narrative we can actually sink our teeth into, with dramatic peaks and valleys filled with crucial exposition. For every explosive interaction with EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, there are a few more sober hours of testimony about the geopolitical value of Ukraine, or the process for storing diplomatic communications. And it all keeps circling back to Donald Trump, who neatly fits the mold of a complicated prestige-drama antihero: an ambitious (usually) white guy who does bad things but may be no worse than the people around him, and is so much fun to watch that you find yourself sticking around.
Yes, it’s true, we’re living in a time of short attention spans and reality-show screaming matches, exploited by a president who measures success through the lens of TV ratings. But these televised hearings also come at a time when television has conditioned viewers to do much more than passively watch. The serial shows that fill the broadcast, cable and streaming channels — the phenomenon known among critics as Peak TV — have sprawling casts and rich dialogue, sympathetic antiheroes and complex storylines. They actively train viewers in feats of unprecedented engagement, driving a passionate fan ecosystem online, promising big payoffs if everyone can just sit through the slow parts.
So maybe TV hasn’t ruined us for politics, after all. Maybe, instead, it’s been preparing us for precisely this moment. That may even offer one explanation for why Trump supporters are likely to stick with him through the coming weeks: Nobody ends up winning our sympathy more than a Walter White or a Don Draper.
It all represents a massive shift in viewing habits since the Watergate era, when there were three major networks plus PBS, and, of course, no livestreaming opportunities over a yet-to-be-invented internet.
“Peak TV,” a term coined in 2015 by FX network chairman John Landgraf, referred to the dark underbelly of the Golden Age of Television: a glut of scripted programs across a growing list of networks, which Landgraf predicted would someday lead to a Darwinian winnowing-down. The challenge Landgraf named is, essentially, the same one some impeachment skeptics have raised: With so much competition for eyeballs, how can any new show gain attention, let alone traction?
One answer is to create the kind of rich, immersive series Landgraf’s network has specialized in, from “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” in the early aughts to challenging hits like “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Americans” and “American Horror Story.” These shows are kin to HBO’s groundbreaking dramas, from “The Wire” to “Game of Thrones” to “Watchmen;” AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad;” ambitious network hits like “Lost.”
Nothing on that list is designed for casual viewing; watching a Golden Age show is a commitment, and following the byzantine plotlines requires both a healthy memory and a body of background knowledge. Sometimes, the media and fans create an online apparatus to help viewers keep it all straight. Often, episodes are followed by a flurry of recaps and podcasts and online conversations. And despite all the talk of Americans’ micro-attention spans and celebrity crushes, the serial drama shows no sign of fading. In 2018, there were nearly 500 scripted series across the TV landscape, and the crash Landgraf fears hasn’t yet come to pass.
It all represents a massive shift in viewing habits since the Watergate era, when there were three major networks plus PBS, and, of course, no livestreaming opportunities over a yet-to-be-invented internet. In 1974, interest in the Richard Nixon impeachment hearings was high — because of civic interest, to be sure, but it couldn’t have hurt that there wasn’t much else to watch. Some 70 to 80 percent of Americans reported that they tuned in for all or some of the hearings.
Over the years, TV audiences splintered as cable channels proliferated. There’s still no shortage of (or shame in) cheesy, easy, or mindless entertainment: “NCIS,” “America’s Got Talent,” and “The Masked Singer” earn some of the highest network ratings. But there’s also ample proof — in the recordbreaking viewership of “Game of Thrones,” in NBC’s willingness to invest in a sitcom about philosophy, in the growing audience for Hulu’s dystopian “Handmaid’s Tale” — that Americans will also flock to long, slow TV that requires their full attention.
So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that, by today’s scattered standards, the Trump impeachment hearings have done more than all right. About 13.1 million people tuned in to the midday programming across six major networks last Wednesday, when Ambassador Bill Taylor and George Kent testified; 12.73 million watched Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch on Thursday; another 13 million watched on Tuesday afternoon. (For reference: midday network soap operas draw 2 to 3 million viewers apiece, and “The Ellen Degeneres Show” draws about 4 million.) And while Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing drew an even more robust 20 million viewers across the networks, it’s worth remembering that the Kavanaugh hearing was a dramatic one-day affair, full of highly emotional testimony about allegations of sexual assault and alcohol — not the intricacies of the foreign service and national security apparatus.
“I think sometimes we don’t give the public enough credit” for paying attention to today’s impeachment process, says Arthur Sanders, a political science professor at Drake University who specializes in how media shapes public opinion. As the hearings continued, he predicted at the start, day-to-day viewership would ebb and flow, but interest would stay high.
That’s a sign, not just of civic engagement, but of stamina the public doesn’t often need to exercise, at a time when political scandals appear and disappear like fireflies on a summer night. Indeed, impeachment has been one of the first truly binge-worthy opportunities of the Trump era, and everything slow-burn TV has been preparing us for.
Peak TV has proven that viewers are perfectly capable of accepting that plot needs to be tempered with exposition, and the impeachment hearings fit this mold precisely. It’s fair, in retrospect, to think that the first day of hearings, featuring sober diplomats Taylor and Kent, laid the groundwork for more dramatic testimony to come — and it’s fair to wonder if Sondland’s testimony would have packed the same punch had it not been already established how the players fit together. The questioning from members is easier to follow when the action rises and falls, and there’s enough lawyerly case-building to counterbalance agitated rants from Representatives Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan.
The hearings have also given us a chance to latch onto quality characters, from fiery inquisitors like Jordan, Representative Elise Stefanik and Representative Sean Maloney to understated diplomats and civil servants like Yovanovitch and former top Russia adviser Fiona Hill. (Sondland, with his incendiary opening statement and his string of one-liners, seemed to view himself as a star player in a rollicking dramedy.) There have been a steady stream of viral moments when viewers collectively gasped, as when Yovanavitch reacted to Trump’s real-time tweet or Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman demanded that he be addressed with his military title. (Ryan Murphy, when you create the inevitable miniseries, please cast John Hodgman as the Vindman twins.) And those characters have also been deployed in efficient, creative ways; like the president in “The West Wing,” who sometimes functioned as more of a symbol than a player, Trump has made an occasional high-impact cameo with a midday statement or a Twitter rant.
Like dialogue crafted in a writer’s room, the rhetoric sometimes manages to soar. There have been speeches about the value of America and truth that might as well have been penned by Aaron Sorkin: Vindman reassuring his Soviet-Union-born father that he won’t be punished for telling the truth in the United States, or Hill recounting the career opportunities the United States afforded a daughter of poor English coal miners. The members of the House Intelligence Committee seem to understand, implicitly, how to wring out those moments, or at least prep them for memes and sharing. On Tuesday, Maloney asked Vindman to re-read a dramatic part of his opening statement, presumably so that viewers who tuned in late could still experience the thrill.
Whether the public’s high attention will change public opinion is another question. As Sanders points out, the most engaged viewers are likely the most partisan: The most popular network for viewing the first week of hearings was Fox, followed by MSNBC, and those channels amounted to 43 percent of the TV viewership. Still, history suggests that, if people keep watching, their views could shift in one direction or another. With the Watergate hearings, public opinion changed in stages over time, as viewers followed the plotline and lost faith in Nixon. During the 1998 Bill Clinton impeachment hearings, Clinton’s public approval ratings actually rose as proceedings went on; Sanders says the public increasingly thought, “‘He had an affair, he probably lied about it, people lie about affairs all the time, so why are we going to remove him from office for that?’”
That’s clearly the outcome Trump is hoping for, and the conclusion Republicans are pushing. Their best hope is that casual viewers see Trump, if not as a lovable rogue, then at least as one of those prestige TV antiheroes. Those kinds of characters are what make serial dramas so intriguing; what draw people in; what make a series last. But from Stringer Bell to Jaime Lannister, the antiheroes tend to get their comeuppance in the end. And viewers are fine with that, too.