Major broadcast and cable networks are carrying the House hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection live. But on many PBS stations, the hearings are losing out to the likes of Daniel Tiger and Curious George.
Some public stations are essentially consigning the hearings to second-class status, airing them only on secondary digital channels instead of their better-known and more widely accessible flagship channels.
Monday's hearing, for example, took a back seat to children's programming on WyomingPBS, the statewide public broadcaster. The station aired its usual morning bloc of "Curious George" and "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" on its main high-definition signal. The hearings appeared on a digital subchannel called Create, which typically features cooking and sewing programs and episodes of "This Old House."
WyomingPBS is among a number of public stations that have been reluctant to pre-empt shows such as "Donkey Hodie" and "Sesame Street" for hearings that sometimes feature cursing - in videotaped testimony, former attorney general William Barr recalled telling Donald Trump his election-fraud claims were "bulls—" - and images of rioters attacking police at the U.S. Capitol.
Video: Rioters echoed Trump’s false claims, Jan. 6 committee video shows
"We have a commitment to the parents in Wyoming to provide a 'safe harbor' on our main channel for their children during the day," said Terry Dugas, the station's general manager. As of Tuesday morning, he said, "we've received no complaints."
Public stations in regions that skew blue as well as red made the same kind of decision. PBS stations in South Carolina, New Hampshire, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia and Iowa, among other states, aired kids' shows on their main channels, and broadcast the hearings on a digital sub-channel called World, which features news, documentaries and discussion programs.
However, some viewers find it difficult or impossible to find these secondary channels, which were made possible by the transition to digital TV broadcasting more than a decade ago. Not all cable and satellite systems include the sub-channels in their lineups. If a viewer doesn't have a cable subscription, they need a special antenna to pull them in over the air.
Nevertheless, stations have touted their coverage. "We are humbled by our duty as a public television station to support the democratic process by making community debates and federal public hearings available to you and all of our viewers across our many platforms," wrote Arizona PBS general manager Adrienne R. Fairwell in an email to viewers last week as she announced that her station would air this week's hearings only on a secondary channel.
Fairwell declined to respond to questions. The station aired Monday's hearing on its World sub-channel, after a broadcast of "Rick Steve's Festive Europe."
Thursday's prime time hearing attracted an estimated national TV audience of around 20 million, about 19 million of them on the three leadings broadcast networks and CNN and MSNBC on cable (the figures do not include PBS' audience). Fox was the only major station that didn't carry the hearing live, opting instead to stick with its opinion programs. However, Fox joined the pack by carrying Monday's morning hearing. And NBC and CBS plan to air future hearings on all affiliate stations (ABC did not immediately respond to The Post).
Some PBS stations, like ArizonaPBS, showed last week's prime time hearing on their main channels but downgraded Monday's hearing to a secondary channel, in favor of children's programming.
The reluctance to showcase the House hearings has a special historic irony. Public TV stations established themselves as a leading news source in the early 1970s by airing hundreds of hours of another congressional inquiry, the Senate Watergate hearings.
Those hearings spawned a nightly recap program hosted by Washington correspondents Robert McNeil and Jim Lehrer. The program became a hit, swelling public television's audience and leading to a surge in pledge-drive contributions to stations before evolving into PBS's signature news program, the "PBS NewsHour."
The stations' decision is striking, too, in light of Congress' role in funding PBS and its affiliated stations. The stations receive taxpayer support through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an entity created by Congress to distribute federal money to noncommercial radio and TV stations. Congress appropriated $485 million to CPB in the current fiscal year. The figure is set to rise to $525 million by 2024.
In contrast to many other PBS stations, Washington, D.C.'s WETA is tripling down on the House hearings, broadcasting them live on its flagship channel and two sub-channels during the day and re-airing them in prime time each evening. (WETA produces "NewsHour").
"This is a way for public media to differentiate itself from commercial providers," said Miguel Monteverde, WETA's senior vice president and general manager. "I'm shocked that there aren't more [public] stations highlighting this. It's riveting TV." He added, "I can't imagine a scenario in which we'd forgo something as important as this for other programming."
A PBS spokesperson, Brianna Barker, said member stations are owned and operated independently and are free to draw up their own schedules for most hours of the day. She was unable to provide a tally of how PBS's 330 member stations are presenting the hearings, but she suggested that more stations will carry them on their main channels as the hearings progress.
At least one PBS station opted not to show the first hearing at all on Thursday, but quickly reversed itself after receiving complaints from viewers. PBS North Carolina dropped the opening session because viewers were able to see it on other stations and through a stream on the station's website, interim chief executive David Crabtree told the Raleigh News & Observer.
In its place, the station aired locally produced programming, such as "On the Road with Chatham Rabbits," "My Home, NC," "North Carolina Weekend" and "David Holt's State of Music."
After fielding complaints from viewers, however, the station decided to carry Monday's hearing on a secondary channel devoted to "civic affairs, issues, entertainment and educational programs relevant to North Carolina."