Detroit TV stations split on how to handle Trump trial

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Detroit TV viewers have no lack of options to follow the Senate's impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, though how local affiliates handle it varies from station to station. 

Decisions on whether to air or not aren't nearly as difficult as during the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, reflecting the dramatic shift in ensuing years in the media landscape with the rise of live-streaming, mobile apps, alternate channels and social media platforms like Facebook. 

Detroit Public TV is carrying gavel-to-gavel coverage on their World Channel, available on cable, but not on their primary broadcast outlet, Channel 56.

"Public TV was built to meet the unmet need, so things like this are a non-decision in our world," said Rich Homberg, DPTV president and CEO.

Fox 2 Detroit is not broadcasting the trial, but streaming them live on their website, mobile app and Facebook. By contrast, WDIV Channel 4, WXYZ Channel 7 and WWJ Channel 62 are all airing it on their main channels.

Fox 2 Detroit is not broadcasting the proceedings, but streaming them live on their website, mobile app and Facebook. By contrast, WDIV Channel 4, WXYZ Channel 7 and WWJ Channel 62 are all airing the trial on their main channels — but not necessarily when it runs into late afternoon or evening programming, depending on the day.

"We're in close communication with NBC," said Marla Drutz, WDIV vice president and general manager, "but we just feel from our perspective that this is history-making." 

At Fox 2, Vice President and News Director Kevin Roseborough said that in developing their plan for the trial, "We focused on balancing the needs of those wanting non-stop coverage while respecting those who prefer our regular broadcast programming and news shows." 

He added that Roop Raj, a local reporter and anchor, has been  "monitoring the trial and providing previews and recaps for broadcast. The response from both viewers and digital users has been favorable." 

The CBS affiliate, WWJ Channel 62, declined to comment specifically on their programming. 

The trial, which started Jan. 21, begins at 1 p.m. and has generally run well past the dinner hour. Democrats and Republicans have each been allotted 24 hours spread over several days to make their cases. On Saturday, Republicans had three hours to launch their rebuttal, but only used two.  

At DPTV, Homberg said, "The good news is that our alternate channels, like the World Channel, let us offer all the trial, without interrupting the main channel and its programming."

Drutz said at WDIV, "We carry trial coverage from when it starts, but at 5 p.m. NBC lets us stop and do local news. And typically at 7 p.m., senators take a dinner break, so we've carried game shows from 7 p.m.-8 p.m. And after that, the network runs its prime-time shows on the primary feed."

Drutz echoes the experience of other local stations when she said they haven't received a lot of complaints about displaced shows, unlike the 1974 impeachment hearings on President Richard Nixon, when soap opera fans rose up in revolt over losing regular programming for weeks on end. 

"We've been preempting 'Days of Our Lives,' 'The Rachel Ray Show,' and 'Ellen,'" Drutz said, "as well as our 4 p.m. news and 'Inside Edition.' As you can imagine," she added, "those are really popular programs that we try to put in different time periods."

By contrast, WXYZ Channel 7 is not rebroadcasting bumped entertainment programming. "But if newscasts have been interrupted," said Kari Wethington, a station spokeswoman, "they’ve moved those to Facebook or platforms like Roku, YouTube TV, and so on."

At WDIV, they've utilized NBC's alternate COZI-TV cable channel to run "Days of Our Lives" from 7-8 p.m., and "Ellen" from midnight-1 a.m. 

The Senate trial may be history-making, but it's not necessarily popular.

Nationally, the six major commercial networks including MSNBC and CNN pulled in 11.8 million viewers on the first day of the Senate trial, according to Nielsen, dropping to 9 million on the second day, when House Democrats began making arguments to justify removing Trump from office.

By contrast, about 13.8 million people watched the first day of the House impeachment hearings last fall.

Locally, Drutz said, about 150,000 Metro Detroiters aged 35 and over tuned in to commercial outlets to watch the impeachment trial at some point last week.

Americans may be tuning out because they made up their minds about Trump’s impeachment months ago, said Eric Kasper, director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. In addition, he added, the eventual outcome — acquittal by the GOP-controlled Senate — seems set in stone, robbing the issue of drama. 

“If the story was still unwritten, so to speak, then people would tune in even if they had personally strong feelings about how they would want it to end,” Kasper said. “It’s the fact that both of those things are the case — a lot of people have made up their minds, and it looks pretty clear what the outcome of this trial is going to be.”

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Associated Press contributed.