It is fair to say that the impeachment trial of President Trump has gotten decent viewership over several channels but is hardly must-see television for most Western New Yorkers.
However, unless you have cable, satellite service or the internet, it has been can’t-see TV for much of the day and the night.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz highlighted the issue a few days ago in a tweet. Here’s his tweet:
Just an observation, if you "cut the cord" and just watch broadcast TV or some service without cable news you can currently watch the "People's Court" but not the #trial of the President of the United States. Says a lot about America today and why we are in the current condition.
— Mark Poloncarz (@markpoloncarz) January 22, 2020
The last sentence blaming television for the “current condition” seems a bit of a stretch, but the reduced coverage does say a lot about the changing nature of television.
As with the coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions every four years, the networks are leaving the bulk of the coverage to cable and streaming services.
The local broadcast network affiliates – WGRZ-TV (NBC), WIVB-TV (CBS), WKBW-TV (ABC) and WUTV (Fox) – are at the mercy of their network's coverage and also appear to be making decisions based on their view of the relative importance of the proceedings as well as viewer input.
Of course, there are also financial considerations. TV isn’t as lucrative a business as it was in past decades and carrying a trial without commercial breaks at the expense of local news can be costly to stations.
You might have expected WNED-TV, the commercial-free local PBS station, to be more concerned about carrying the third presidential impeachment trial in the history of the United States. But it isn’t carrying the daytime or prime-time coverage that PBS is offering.
Here is a quick look at the philosophy of local stations about impeachment coverage from the people running them.
Donald K. Boswell, president and chief executive officer of local public broadcasting:
“We are carrying it live on WBFO-FM the full day,” he wrote. “The PBS coverage can also be seen on our website live. With all the commercial station coverage, we wanted to protect our children’s programming for families.”
Of course, there hasn’t been any commercial station coverage in prime time, which would have made WNED unique among local stations if it carried it then.
“We feel that the coverage by WBFO and live on the website has been well-received by the audience,” wrote Boswell when asked about prime time.
Jim Toellner, general manager of WGRZ:
Toellner wrote the station has been carrying the trial “daily and hourly and (based on) more observation and judgment of many factors or variables. We always stream on digital platforms, which makes it available to vast majority. We also monitor viewer feedback.”
He said the station has carried “a lot” of the trial.
“At least until 4 p.m. each day. At least once a little longer and sometimes we cut back. We have let NBC decide during prime. We have received much more negative feedback for covering from people missing their shows than vice versa. Obviously though we feel it is historical and important even if sometimes redundant. We are airing pre-empted shows on Antenna TV 2.2.”
Brien Kennedy, general manager of WIVB:
Kennedy explained that Channel 4 stopped carrying the coverage at 3:30 p.m. Thursday because that’s when CBS stopped offering it. He added that Channel 4 offers live coverage online via another Nexstar station in Tampa, Fla., WFLA.
“If (CBS) does come back, we will monitor the situation and make a decision,” he wrote. “Our decision would be based on what was happening. Also we want to make sure we are balanced in our coverage of this story.”
Channel 4 carried its local news programming starting at 4 p.m. Thursday. Advertising in local news programs provides a significant portion of a station’s revenue that would be lost if the impeachment trial pre-empted news coverage.
CBS made Channel 4’s decision easier on the first day of the trial Tuesday when it reportedly was the first network to stop carrying the trial at 3:15 p.m. so viewers could watch regular afternoon programming.
Marc Jaromin, general manager of WKBW-TV:
“Covering the Impeachment Trial is core to our journalism values so will we be providing full network coverage,” he wrote. “We are all in.”
"We are following the lead of the Senate activity," he added. "If they are in an open impeachment session we will be there."
"If events warrant the network staying with coverage during local, access or prime, we will stick with the network."
However, WKBW appears to be at the mercy of ABC's coverage, which likely explains why I saw a few minutes of the syndicated show “Hot Bench” instead of the trial on Thursday afternoon.
Nick Magnini, general manager of WUTV and WNYO-TV:
“No coverage. Regular programming. We see it as an alternative option. Same for WNYO.”
WUTV has the option of carrying Fox News coverage, which reportedly cut away from the trial at 5 p.m. Wednesday and that night was the only cable news channel to skip the trial and instead carried its regular opinion shows that support President Trump.