The drama of this week’s House speaker vote resembles something out of “Waiting For Godot.” Turns out Americans are tuning in for the political theater.
Live coverage of Representative Kevin McCarthy’s struggle to clinch the House speakership — and the grueling internecine fight in the Republican Party — has translated into bigger-than-usual ratings for cable news, according to Nielsen.
And C-SPAN, the low-fi cable network beloved by the Congressional cognoscenti, has gotten a major boost in attention for its round-the-clock coverage of the House floor, now the site of a political battle for the ages.
For CNN and MSNBC, the spectacle in Washington has proved a New Year’s gift after a brutal 2022, when both networks saw their audiences plummet as Americans moved on from the Trump era and the peak of the pandemic.
As Mr. McCarthy’s losing efforts mounted on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon, CNN edged Fox News in the key demographic of viewers ages 25 to 54, a highly unusual victory against its perennially higher-rated rival.
In those daytime hours, losing ballot after losing ballot, both CNN and MSNBC lured audiences far bigger than their weekday average. MSNBC said it was on pace for the network’s highest rated week in the past 6 months, at least among daytime viewers in the 25-54 age demographic.
Fox News, long the No. 1 cable news network, has remained dominant in total viewers this week. And while many conservatives have expressed dismay at the chaos among House Republicans, Fox News still scored big ratings for many of its opinion shows. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, both leading right-wing personalities, have been watched closely by the political class for indications about where their sympathies lie in the running drama.
No channel, though, has enjoyed a bigger bump of cultural clout than C-SPAN, a media property with decades of experience broadcasting Congressional roll calls.
C-SPAN has trended on Twitter and seen a record number of downloads of its mobile app, according to a spokesman, Howard Mortman. C-SPAN is not rated by Nielsen, but its YouTube stream of Thursday’s proceedings recorded 1.2 million views.
Usually, C-SPAN’s coverage of the House is overseen by the political party in charge of the chamber, which can control what C-SPAN viewers see and hear.
C-SPAN is allowed, however, to control its own cameras during the election of a House speaker — a process that has now stretched into a fourth day, granting the network a longer-than-expected period of independent editorial control.
The result has been a more dynamic broadcast that has captured sotto voce moments among members not typically witnessed by the general public — and some have gone viral online. A side conversation between Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York gained lots of attention in part because C-SPAN’s crew spotted the duo and trained a camera on them.
“In a way, the American people have benefited from the past few days by seeing members of Congress in candid moments and conversations,” Mr. Mortman said. “This past week has been an intensive civic education in how Congress operates, and the American people can see it all for themselves.”