PROVIDENCE – If you’ve never worked in a local television newsroom, you might not be able to grasp the unhinged fury that comes from loyal viewers when the station diverges from its regularly scheduled programming.
For CBS watchers, it’s the first Thursday and Friday of NCAA basketball tournament, when “Family Feud” is interrupted by the likes of Yale and Baylor going down to the wire. Talk about March Madness. For ABC viewers, anything that interferes with “General Hospital” is going to result on a flood of angry calls to the newsroom.
And don’t you dare ruin the nightly experience that is “Jeopardy!”
With President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial set to dominate news coverage for the foreseeable future, executives at Rhode Island’s three major television stations are now facing a difficult question:
Do you run wall-to-wall coverage of a proceeding that is both historic and likely to be boring? Or do you opt to air “Judge Judy,” whose courtroom is almost certainly going to be more entertaining than US Representative Adam Schiff playing prosecutor each afternoon?
“When they announced it would start at 1 p.m., my first thought was, oh my god, that’s ‘Days of Our Lives,’” said Betty-Jo Cugini, a former news director at WJAR-10, the NBC affiliate in Rhode Island.
Cugini, who now works as the supervisor of new media at the University of Rhode Island, said there are lots factors for local station leaders to consider.
When she worked at Channel 10 during President Clinton’s impeachment trial in the late 1990s, the local stations were still the top source for news coverage. Now, with multiple cable stations airing the trial and the ability to stream it online, she said it is possible stations will consider sticking with their normal programming.
“You have to always be thinking about who your audience is,” she said. “So do you air this and try to get viewers who are interested in the trial or make the decision not to run it?”
None of the local television stations in Rhode Island are owned and operated by the major networks; instead, they’re owned by large third-party companies that have affiliation agreements with the networks: WJAR is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, WPRI (CBS) and WNAC (Fox) are owned by Nexstar Media Group, and WLNE (ABC) is owned by Standard Media Group.
The affiliation agreements give the stations control over local news and syndicated content - like game shows – but the stations are required or strongly urged to run certain programming offered by the national network that they’re affiliated with. During the day, that could mean breaking news like the impeachment trial. At night, it typically means the shows that air in primetime.
For the first day of Trump’s trial, WJAR, WNAC and WLNE carried the opening arguments for the entire afternoon before the stations aired the local news beginning at 5 p.m. (WNAC continued to carry the trial, but sister station WPRI also went to local news.) All of the local newscasts led with impeachment coverage and teased their livestreams of the trial.
At this point, none of the local stations have made a decision about how they’ll proceed with impeachment coverage after Tuesday. The networks have also not said how they intend to cover the trial beyond the first day.
“We will be relying on NBC News coverage except during our regularly scheduled newscast windows, when we will cover the proceedings and dip in live as needed,” said Scott Isaacs, the news director at WJAR.
Kelly Johnston, the news director at WLNE, said the station broke away from the trial to air the local news, but planned to continue providing viewers with updates while also pointing them toward their website.
“Our goal today, and every day, is to best serve our viewers,” Johnston said in an email. “That is our top consideration in situations like this.”
It’s still unclear how long the trial will last. In Clinton’s case, the trial started on Jan. 7, 1999, and he was acquitted on Feb. 12, 1999.
After initially planning to give the impeachment managers from the US House of Representatives and Trump’s legal team each 24 hours over two days to make their opening arguments, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday he would give attorneys from both sides an extra day for their opening arguments.
Trump has urged the Senate to move quickly on the trial, under the assumption that he’ll be acquitted by the Republican majority. But even under the quickest of time frames, the trial is expected to continue through next week.
To be sure, sticking with the trial won’t be an easy call for the local stations, Cugini said. She said executives will also have to work closely with their sales departments to discuss how ads will air if there are long stretches where the trial is airing.
“I’m glad I’m not a news director right now,” she said.