Jan. 6 Congressional Hearings: Networks Tee Up Live History for ‘Unprecedented’ Primetime TV Spectacle

The House committee will make their argument in the court of public opinion in an event with echoes of Watergate

Jan. 6 Capitol Hearings Committee CBS NBC ABC Trump
(L-R) Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Chair of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY). (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Thursday night, multiple broadcast news and cable networks, along with several of their streaming counterparts, will offer extensive, live prime-time coverage of the House committee’s public hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol to showcase the investigation findings – an event committee organizers are framing for maximum dramatic impact on TV.

Norah O’Donnell will anchor a network-wide prime-time special report for CBS and on CBS News Streaming, Lester Holt will anchor an NBC News Special Report on NBC and NBC News Now, and David Muir will anchor live coverage of the hearing on ABC. The three broadcast networks have made the rare move to preempt regularly scheduled programming – an unusual amount of mainstream focus on the event.

“Everything about the hearing Thursday night is unprecedented,” CBS News congressional correspondent Scott MacFarlane told TheWrap. “This is the largest criminal investigation in American history and the committee is doing the only investigation of its kind in American history.”

The House committee’s first public prime-time hearing Thursday is expected to be followed by hearings through the end of June before a final hearing in September. Former President of ABC News James Goldston will be orchestrating the coverage across the mix of daytime and prime-time as if it were explosive must-see TV. The aim is to capture the attention of the nation and the world with this high-drama running event.

“We expect it to not look at all like a traditional congressional hearing,” MacFarlane said.

The Coverage Plan

Historically, unwieldy congressional hearings have rarely qualified as must-see TV – at least not since the Watergate hearings. But Goldston is choreographing a more disciplined and unified event that is going to look “more theatrical” than congressional, McFarlane said.

Besides the Alphabet networks, CNN and MSNBC also plan to broadcast the hearings wall-to-wall (though for how long is not yet known).

The only major news channel that has not pledged to air the entirety of the live hearings in primetime: Fox News Channel, which will cover the hearings through the lens of its flagship lineup of regular hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, breaking in live “as warranted.” (“Gutfeld!” will be preempted for a post-hearing analysis special.) However, Fox Business will run the entire hearings, with special coverage anchored by Bret Baier, and the hearings will be streaming in full on FOXNews.com with no carrier authentication required.

The Committee’s Case

The hearings are an opportunity for the committee to lay out its argument in the court of public opinion that there was a coordinated Republican-led effort to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory, stoked by then-President Donald Trump. Media coverage is a key element in this strategy and the decision to preempt prime-time programming across several broadcast networks, where regular Thursday night programming can reach tens of millions of viewers, will likely lead to a significant audience turnout.

Members of the Jan. 6 committee did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

The committee has reportedly reviewed more than 100,00 documents and conducted more than 1,000 interviews. Previously unseen footage from inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, pre-produced segments and live witness testimony will be used to create not just an informative political hearing, but compelling prime-time TV. This is expected to include unseen body camera and surveillance footage from Jan. 6, recordings with witnesses, and potentially unreleased footage captured by rioters.

“This is a big deal that deserves a primetime audience and not up against the NBA Finals,” Josh Gropper, a television agent at Napoli Management Group who previously worked in programming and content strategy at CNN, told TheWrap. “Most people do not have the opportunity to watch proceedings of this historical magnitude uninterrupted during daytime working hours.”

The Cast of Characters

Much of the looming drama has been carved around the figures who are expected to be both present and absent from the hearings. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Trump trade economist Peter Navarro have been indicted for contempt of Congress by the Justice Department for refusing to testify in the upcoming hearings, even after receiving subpoenas. Former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and his former deputy Dan Scavino have also refused to testify.

It has previously been reported that J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge and lawyer who advised Mike Pence prior to Jan. 6, is expected to testify. Luttig provided Pence with the legal ammunition to decline Trump’s request that the Vice President overturn the 2020 election results.

Congress tends to release hearing announcements and schedules days or weeks in advance. But on the eve of the first hearing, the committee has yet to publicly provide a witness list. Running parallel to the House investigation is the Justice Department investigation, which has already prosecuted more than 800 people. The House’s investigation could be even wider and more dynamic as it explores what gave rise to this event.

The committee members “believe unequivocally that part of their responsibility is to codify the historic record, to make clear for generations to come, what they found and what happened in this singular American event,” MacFarlane said. But whether or not these hearings can change the hearts and minds of potentially persuadable Americans, if such a group exists, 16 months after the fact remains to be seen.

Witnessing History, Live and in Primetime

In April, Rep. Jamie Raskin teased that the House committee findings “will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House” and made comparisons to the Watergate hearings.

The rhythms of history surrounding this event are difficult to deny, as the Thursday hearing begins just eight days before the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break in. Similar to how that immense scandal brought into question how beholden to the law the president of the United States is, these hearings will partly detail the committee’s investigation into Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.

Watergate’s special committee held 51 televised sessions across the summer and fall of 1973, ensnaring the attention of the nation and building to a history-altering argument. That committee held its first session 11 months to the day after the break in, while the house committee will begin its public hearings on the Capitol riots following an 11-month investigation.

“I look forward to seeing how the various news networks react, inform, and analyze the new information the committee reveals in real time,” Gropper said.

The committee’s next hearing following Thursday’s start is scheduled for June 13.