TV news ratings surged with Trump felony conviction coverage. Here's how it was covered

A TV audience of more than 15 million watched Thursday as former President Donald Trump became a convicted felon.

Starting around 1:45 p.m. Pacific, viewing surged for cable news and broadcast networks as they delivered a New York jury's verdict to convict Trump on 34 felony counts against him in the New York hush money case. Trump was found guilty of falsifying business records related to a payment made to silence adult film actor Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election.

Nielsen data showed that the plurality of viewers were tuned into Fox News, which is regularly the most-watched network in the hour, thanks to its popular panel show "The Five." Fox News stayed with anchor Shannon Bream until about 2:43 p.m. before "The Five" co-hosts weighed in with harsh criticism of the verdict from the network's pro-Trump commentators.

Fox News averaged 4.7 million viewers from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Pacific, when it typically pulls in around 3 million. The verdict started rolling in at 2:06 p.m.

MSNBC, which had a large on-screen ticker that tallied the number of guilty verdicts as they came in, scored 3.7 million viewers in the hour, nearly doubling its typical turn out for anchor Nicolle Wallace's program. CNN also saw its audience spike, with 2.6 million viewers

Preliminary ratings from Nielsen show that ABC had the most viewers among the broadcast networks with 3.4 million viewers for a special report that aired at 1:48 p.m. Pacific. A CBS News special report scored 2.5 million viewers. Data for NBC were not available.

Overall, the total number of people watching on TV will not be on par with such major news events as Biden's State of the Union address, which drew 32 million viewers in March.

Like many Trump-related events, there is no precedent for viewing of a courtroom verdict on crimes committed by a former president. A verdict was not expected Thursday, and it arrived when most people were still at work or commuting home. Many news consumers were more likely to have streamed video of the outcome on their phones.

In prime time on the East Coast, from 5 to 8 p.m. Pacific, MSNBC's analysis led by Rachel Maddow won the night with 3.4 million viewers, scoring a rare win over Fox News, which was second with 3 million. CNN averaged 1.25 million viewers. The progressive leaning MSNBC tends to pull in more viewers during times when the news is bad for Trump.

MSNBC was strongest at 8 p.m. Eastern when it featured former Trump attorney Michael Cohen as a guest. Cohen's testimony was critical to the prosecution's case against Trump.

The tone of the coverage broke down according to the tribal leanings of the cable news audience. Conservative Fox News hosts and guests expressed disgust with the verdict, calling it a form of election interference aimed at helping President Biden, who will face off again against Trump in the 2024 presidential contest in November.

"I guess we all need to shop at Banana Republic from now on, because that's what it feels like, a Banana Republic," said Fox News host Laura Ingraham.

The court's work earned praise from the set at MSNBC.

"It's exactly what America needs right now," Cohen said in reaction to the verdict. "We need for accountability to be had by all those that break the law. Because, as we like to continuously state, no one is above the law, and today's verdict demonstrates that.”

Maddow expressed concern over the apparent divide along partisan lines.

"The Republicans, Trump's enablers, would have celebrated an acquittal and they're only condemning a conviction because they don't like the result," Maddow said. "I think what is important is for us not to look away from what is broken. And what is broken is that one of the two parties does not respect the rule of law.... And that is a flashing red light for our country.”

CNN tried to get both sides, booking Trump's lawyer Todd Blanche for a sit-down with anchor Kaitlan Collins. But based on the network's distant third place finish behind Fox News and MSNBC, the cable audience continues to gravitate to the opinion hosts who represent their own viewpoints.

Such stories can be tricky to navigate for Fox News anchors who don't dabble in opinion. On Wednesday, Bream took fire from Trump in a post criticizing her for correcting a guest, Trump attorney Alina Habba, who said the Biden administration is behind the legal cases against his predecessor. (The hush money trial was prosecuted by the Manhattan District Attorney's office).

Unbridled, Bream succinctly described the verdict in a political context. "The Biden-Harris campaign is free now to call President Trump a convicted felon," Bream said.

TV news organizations will now be faced with the challenge of how much of a platform to provide candidate Trump, as he moves out of the courtroom and onto the campaign trail.

Trump announced Friday that he was holding a press conference in the atrium of Trump Tower in Manhattan. NBC was the only broadcast network to cut into regular programming to cover the event.

But Trump took no questions during the appearance, in which he aired a litany of grievances and attacks on President Biden, including an accusation that the Democratic administration "wants to take away your cars."

NBC pulled away from the remarks, as did CNN and MSNBC, noting the falsehoods coming from Trump. Fox News ran the speech in full.

Trump is slated to give his first post-verdict interview to Fox News, airing on the Sunday edition of "Fox & Friends."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.