An audience of at least 20 million people watched the first prime-time hearing of the House Select Committee’s investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on Thursday night, according to Nielsen.
By scheduling a congressional hearing for 8 to 10 p.m., committee members and Democrats were hoping to make the case to the biggest audience possible. ABC, CBS and NBC pre-empted their prime-time programming and went into special-report mode to cover it live.
Though the Thursday night figure pales next to presidential debates (63 million to 73 million) or this year’s State of the Union address (38 million), it’s still much larger than the audience that would normally watch a daytime congressional hearing. And it’s in the ballpark of television events like a big “Sunday Night Football” game or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
ABC attracted the biggest audience, with 5.2 million viewers. NBC and CBS each had an audience of more than three million. MSNBC averaged more than four million, and CNN drew 2.7 million. (The 20 million figure did not yet include PBS, so the total audience was most likely a bit bigger.)
Viewers who tuned in mostly stuck around for the entire congressional proceeding. Viewership on each of the broadcast networks remained steady between 8 and 10 p.m., according to half-hour Nielsen breakdowns.
While the broadcast networks gave up their prime-time entertainment offerings and CNN and MSNBC gave the hearing wall-to-wall coverage, there was a conspicuous outlier among the cable news networks. Fox News, the most-watched network in cable, did not carry the hearings live, instead sticking with its usual prime-time lineup.
The Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity dedicated their shows to Jan. 6, and both had the hearing playing live in a split screen — but the feed from Congress was muted while the hosts spent two hours belittling the committee’s efforts.
“It’s deranged, and we’re not playing along,” Mr. Carlson said of the hearings. “This is the only hour on an American news channel that will not be carrying their propaganda live. They are lying, and we are not going to help them do it. What we will do instead is to try to tell you the truth.”
Fox’s counterprogramming efforts drew an average audience of three million, which is just about normal.
The Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum did cover the hearings live but did so on Fox Business, which attracts far fewer viewers. Roughly 223,000 people watched the hearings on Fox Business. When Mr. Baier and Ms. MacCallum switched over to Fox News for a two-hour special at 11 p.m., an average of 1.3 million watched.
Local affiliates of the Fox broadcast network had the option of picking up the Fox Business feed but were not required to do so. Some major Fox affiliates, like Los Angeles and Chicago, took the feed while others aired regularly scheduled entertainment programming. The Fox station in the New York market, for instance, elected to run episodes of “MasterChef Junior” and “Don’t Forget the Lyrics.”