For televised impeachment hearings, 'boring' is helpful to Democrats

For televised impeachment hearings, 'boring' is helpful to Democrats
© Greg Nash

Modern media culture may be overheated and then some, but the House impeachment hearings prove once again that television is at heart a “cool” medium. So far, that’s good news for the Democrats.

Critics of all stripes have pummeled the hearings for “lacking in pizzazz” and playing out like “a tepid bore.” But under the rules of certain kinds of television, that’s a good thing.

Among executives and producers, it’s a given that TV is a “cool” medium. The phrase, coined by media academic Marshall McLuhan, started out as something more scholarly, but has come to mean that cool emotions play better on the screen than “hot” ones: stability over anxiety, confidence over anger, friendly over fawning — especially on live television.

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TV creators understand that people invite our pictures directly into their homes. It’s like letting a stranger come in and sit down: We’re less nervous when that person is calm, collected and reasonable, no matter what he or she might want from us. TV does this through its most important image — the close-up, which exaggerates emotions and expressions. That makes hot images seem even more intense.

Think about how you’d feel if that stranger in your house suddenly leaned in close to your face and either became overly familiar or started screaming at you. It wouldn’t matter what he was saying, you’d look for a way to show him the door.

Sometimes, of course, we like the screaming — that’s why the news media landscape is so polarized. The difference here is that viewers of high-volume opinion cable shows know what they’re getting. They’ve developed a bond with the hosts, who really aren’t strangers anymore. It’s kind of like having your angry uncle over for coffee so you can both complain about politics: You know exactly how the evening will play out.

But most live TV isn’t like that. With many live news events, we don’t know the people on camera. Hot emotions coming off the screen from them make us uncomfortable; we see these strangers as electronic invaders and instinctively tune them out.

Few could say that about the early rounds of witnesses in the impeachment hearings: George Kent, William Taylor and Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchWashington state Democrat announces retirement The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records Phone records detail extent of Giuliani, White House contacts MORE were cool and composed in front of the TV cameras. Challenging questions tossed at them were met with self-assurance and self-control. For viewers genuinely hunting down clues about the character and motivations of these three, “boring” was helpful.

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The same goes for both the majority and minority counsels on the House Intelligence Committee. Daniel Goldman and Stephen Castor tended to question witnesses in a low-key, lawyerly tone that invited viewers to see them as professionals doing a job.

Members of the committee itself didn’t fare as well; few kept their emotions in check. Some were angry and accusatory, others effusive with flattery — all hot emotions that could raise warning flags with the TV audience.

The dynamic could dramatically change as more witnesses testify in public. They could explode, or abruptly break down under sharp cross-examination. That would be great television — and, most likely, undermine the Democrats’ case. But if the next several days follow the first few, those supporting the president might feel increasing pressure to step forward and present their side to the committee and the cameras.

Of course, that would only work if everyone understood it’s best to play it cool. After nearly three years of unending heat and drama from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the House hearings provide a reminder that, sometimes, “boring” carries its own kind of magic. 

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.