One of the most consequential events in the recent history of the U.S. is set to be dissected on Thursday night during TV’s primetime schedule. Journalists slated to cover it will have to hope America sees the broadcast as something other than entertainment.
On Thursday night, most major broadcast networks and cable-news outlets are slated to shake up their evening programming grid to show what is expected to be a shocking report from the U.S. House Select Committee, which has spent months investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and what may be coordinated efforts behind it. Politicians are known to get into the weeds of their findings to try to make political points by attacking the other side, and to focus overmuch on the wonky inner workings of U.S. bureaucracy than on bigger themes. Thursday’s presentation, which may point to U.S. government officials at the time as bearing some responsibility for the attacks, is expected to defy those expectations.
The Committee is working with James Goldston, the former president of ABC News who oversaw the division through the production of everything from a group of boys in Thailand trapped in caves to “Good Morning America.” Goldson declined to comment on his role, which was previously reported by Axios.
CBS News’ Robert Costa, however, expects the Committee to make its point in no uncertain terms. “It is going to be very video-oriented, at least at the start, with different cuts of the attack itself, new photos and videos from that day that have not yet been seen by the American public,” says the correspondent and co-author of the book “Peril,” during an interview. “Interspersed with the video will be anecdotes and pictures of depositions, where you have some live video of witnesses from previous interviews, some live witnesses some of whom have not been heard from yet. It should be intriguing to see if they can grab the nation’s attention.”
TV-news outlets will certainly make a significant effort. CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell, ABC News’ David Muir and NBC News’ Lester Holt typically hold forth at 6:30 p.m. on most weekdays to deliver the traditional evening news. On Thursday, however, all three will anchor special primetime reports built around the Committee’s presentation. NBC has already lined up a good portion of its Washington staff, including Chuck Todd, Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker and Garrett Haake. CBS News and NBC News also have plans to cover the events via streaming video.
The cable-news networks are also deploying different crews. CNN has enlisted Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper to anchor special coverage that starts at 7 p.m. from Washington D.C., with Don Lemon picking up anchoring duties at 11 p.m. MSNBC, meanwhile, will rely on Rachel Maddow, Nicolle Wallace and Joy Reid to lead live coverage at 7 p.m., with Stephanie Ruhle picking up duties at 11 p.m.
Fox News is trying a very different tactic. The bulk of its direct coverage of the report will turn up in primetime on Fox Business Network, where Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will hold forth starting at 8 p.m. On Fox News Channel, the network’s regular primetime hosts will lead their programs, and “cover the hearings as news warrants.” Shannon Bream will lead a news show on Fox News at 11 p.m., joined by Baier and MacCallum, pre-empting the network’s late-night program, “Gutfeld.”
Coverage from Fox News and CNN will also be available via streaming without requiring viewers to prove they are cable subscribers.
It’s easy to think of the whole thing as a potboiler drama, something that might entertain as easily as an hour of “Law & Order.” But there’s so much more at stake, says Costa, who hopes viewers will give the proceedings more attention than they might normally during a weeknight. “This is deadly serious. This is American democracy. This story deserves more attention. It’s a primetime story, but it’s not a one-and-done special movie. This is real life. This is democracy under the microscope.”
Expectations are running high, he says. “I have been walking around the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate all Monday, talking to lawmakers in both chambers and asking them, ‘What does this all mean? What are we going to learn?’” he says. “Lawmakers are telling me in both parties that they are on edge about what the Committee has found.” He interviewed Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican who is a member of the House Committee, for “CBS Sunday Morning” and says “she is confident that they have found material and evidence that paints the picture, and I’ll be watching to see what happens.”
The story is likely to continue beyond Thursday, Costa notes, thanks to a Department of Justice investigation into the Jan. 6 attack that is ongoing.
On Thursday night, a political hearing may prove to be as big a draw as a major sports event or series finale — even if what’s at stake is of more consequence than either of those two types of programming.