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How many people are watching the impeachment trial? Here are the numbers...

Posted February 11, 2021 11:21 p.m. EST

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Those empty seats in the Senate chamber on Thursday? They are emblematic of the public's reaction to the second Trump impeachment trial.

If you've been glued to every minute of the trial, or even just half-watching the proceedings, then you're part of a special club. You're learning the full story of the crimes that were committed at the Capitol on January 6. But you are much more plugged-in than the average American adult.

The Nielsen TV ratings for the first two days of trial coverage show that only a sliver of the public is watching at any given time. The ratings for CNN and MSNBC are way up -- and the ratings for Fox News are much weaker. Some people are also watching coverage via the broadcast networks, but not in huge numbers.

The bottom line: News junkies are gripped by the emotional presentations, but a vast swath of the nation is not. More casual news consumers are catching the coverage in bits and pieces, by watching clips of the Democratic presentation on news websites or YouTube, or by scanning summaries by partisan outlets. This is far, far from one of those "drop what you're doing and watch" moments in America.

What the numbers tell us

On Tuesday afternoon an average of 11 million viewers watched the opening arguments across MSNBC, CNN, Fox, ABC and CBS. (NBC, PBS and other outlets also aired live coverage but I don't have exact data for those channels.) On Wednesday afternoon the same five channels averaged 12.4 million viewers. This is an average, which means people came and went the whole time, and the cumulative audience was much higher. But given that nearly 210 million adults live in the US, you might conclude that many folks think they know how this story ends, so they're not bothering to watch...

>> However: Trump's second trial IS drawing a larger average audience than the first trial, the NYT's John Koblin points out...

>> On Wednesday CNN was #1 overall in the 25-54 demo while MSNBC prevailed among total viewers...

>> Online, the streaming audience was smaller, but still significant. CNN Digital's live streams on Tuesday and Wednesday surpassed the equivalent days for the 2019 House Impeachment Hearings and the 2020 Senate Impeachment Trial...

Fox viewers don't want to see Democratic arguments

Fox News ended Wednesday morning with 1.4 million viewers. Then the trial began, and so did Fox's ratings slide. Fox bottomed out at 1 million in the 3pm hour, though the audience levels noticeably ticked up during a break in the trial at 1:39pm, when Fox's Trump-friendly analysis of the trial brought some viewers back. The audience came back in a big way at 5 p.m. when Fox cut away from the Senate chamber and aired "The Five" -- 2.7 million viewers were there for it. Some tuned out during "Special Report" at 6, and many more tuned out when Fox resumed trial coverage from 6:30 til 7 -- Fox plummeted to 1.2 million viewers. The audience rushed back, of course, for "Tucker Carlson Tonight," which topped 3 million. But MSNBC and CNN's average viewership was up above 3 million all afternoon long! The takeaway is clear: Fox's base rejected the prosecution of Trump. They only wanted to hear the pro-Trump spin...

>> Thought bubble: I know it never would have happened, but what if the Senate had decided to conduct this trial in the evening, when a prime-time audience might have watched live?

Pulling further apart?

Will that be the primary result of this trial? New tears in the proverbial American fabric? Even more fights between red and blue?

The insurrection shouldn't be seen as a partisan issue, but it has been, period, full stop. Folks have retreated to their corners. Charges of hypocrisy have flown in all directions. The crimes that will never be forgotten by Trump critics have already been excused, and buried down the memory hole, by Trump loyalists. The terms "Trump critics" and "Trump loyalists" shouldn't even be a part of this conversation, but... they are.

What happened at the Capitol on January 6? Trump's war on truth has affected how people answer that question. And it's pulling people even further apart...

Not worth debating?

Brian Lowry writes: "Twitter spats seldom merit attention, but I think there's a significant point buried in producer David Simon's gleefully vulgar exchange with Hugh Hewitt, in which Hewitt offered Simon a chance to come debate on his syndicated radio show. It's a favorite tactic of Hewitt's, but buried within Simon's response was this: Having gone all in on defending the former president, you no longer have the credibility to be worth debating. This might not be a path to bridging the political divide, but it does send a message that someone like Hewitt -- once seen as a fair broker of conservative ideals -- has sacrificed that standing in the eyes of many on the left..."

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