TV news ready to shift gears after impeachment saga ends

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Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, followed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., left, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., leaves the Senate chamber after presiding over the impeachment trial and today's acquittal of President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – The Senate's vote to acquit President Donald Trump not only ended the impeachment saga Wednesday, it shut off the source of hours of programming for television news networks.

The vote, shown live on ABC, CBS, NBC and the cable news networks, came after one final twist in the announcement of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney's decision to convict Trump, making him the only senator to stray from party-line voting.

“Today — the final act,” NBC's Lester Holt said to open his network's coverage.

“Today — no more mysteries,” said ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

News anchors sat by silently to let the roll calls on two articles of impeachment play out. The Senate's decision to restrict the number of cameras to show its proceedings proved a real hindrance when it came time to vote, however. Viewers had only an overhead shot of the Senate floor and could not see individual senators proclaim “guilty” or “not guilty.” Instead, they heard disembodied voices.

Cable news viewers were able to see Romney less than two hours earlier as he took to the Senate floor to announce he would vote to convict Trump on abuse of power, but acquit him on obstruction of justice.

“Wow,” said a visibly moved Brooke Baldwin on CNN when he was done. “That was pure honesty and emotion from Mitt Romney.”

“That was a true profile in courage speech that we just saw,” echoed analyst John Avlon.

Fox News Channel moved immediately to a sharp interview Chris Wallace had conducted with Romney earlier in the day, in which the senator sought to explain his thinking to a television audience likely stocked with Republicans who would be upset with him.

Both Romney and Wallace understood the stakes, with the news anchor asking whether it could mean the end of his political career. Romney said it couldn't get much worse for him, politically speaking, than losing the presidential election to Barack Obama in 2012.

“It's going to get pretty lonely in this town for you,” Wallace said.

Romney did succeed in changing the emphasis of news coverage for what was largely a preordained event; broadcast networks spoke immediately about his decision upon opening coverage of the Senate vote.

There appeared to be some tension on CBS' set after newly hired analyst Reince Prebius, Trump's former chief of staff, declared impeachment a “fiasco” that was flawed from the beginning because there were no alleged crimes in the articles of impeachment.

CBS analyst John Dickerson moved to correct his new colleague.

“We don't want to leave people with the misimpression that you have to commit a crime to be impeached,” Dickerson said. “The vast majority of legal scholars” say a president can be impeached for acts that are not specifically crimes, he said.

Minutes after the acquittal, commentators on Fox News' “The Five” were on the attack against Democrats.

“This was a big, fat waste of time,” said Fox's Greg Gutfeld. “The only winner in this whole thing — us. The network is pulling in millions of eyeballs. God knows what the ad money is. My second home is buying a third home.”

In fact, Fox appeared to benefit from the impeachment more than its rivals. Its viewership during daytime hours for the months of November, December and January was up 19% compared with the same three months a year earlier, the Nielsen company said. Rivals CNN and MSNBC saw a decrease in viewers, perhaps due to a lack of suspense in the eventual outcome.

The same pattern held true in prime time, where Fox News saw a 28% increase year to year, Nielsen said.

CNN aired the most of the Senate's impeachment trial live, showing 63 hours, or 95% of the trial time through Monday, according to the watchdog group Media Matters for America. MSNBC aired 61 hours live, or 94% of the trial, the group said.

Fox News aired 38 hours of the Senate trial live, or 57% of it. That's because Fox generally didn't air the trial when it was on in the evening, preferring instead to let its prime-time opinion hosts give their take on what was happening.

For the most part, major broadcast networks showed the trial during the day but didn't pre-empt prime time programming at night.

Now, without impeachment as a topic for discussions, the news networks will have to move on. But the election offers a seamless transition; CNN had set aside prime-time hours Thursday for town hall meetings with Democrats in New Hampshire.