January 6 ratings offer a new model for digital age drama

The January 6 House hearings too delivered about revelations and drama — unfolding as a disciplined, engrossing summer series that’s a new blueprint for effective congressional hearings in the modern age.

Why is this important: The committee ditched the traditional slack format and methodically constructed a taut, colorful narrative with the precision of a prosecutor and the flair of a cinematographer.

here’s how the committee did:

  1. The committee sticks to only one scenario: former President Trump did it. The staff collects thousands of hours of testimony and tens of thousands of documents to make this point. The committee is resisting tangents about House Republicans or other ancillary players and eliminating anything to point the finger at Trump.
  2. The committee involved former ABC News President James Goldston, who produced each audience as if it were a “20/20” episode – raw enough to be believable, yet scripted enough to sell the story in the allotted time. Goldston added network-style graphics – an animation of the Capitol Breach, a seating plan for a bonkers Oval Office meeting, a map of the West Wing yesterday to show how Cassidy Hutchinson sat down compared in the Oval Office.
  3. The limit committee hearings every few hours, rather than the nightly routine of so many high-profile hearings. And the committee abandoned lengthy opening statements. Instead, a member reads a short introduction and then dives into a live testimonial.
  4. The committee filmed depositions, rather than the more common Congressional practice of relying on written transcripts. This allows members to spot a quick snippet of a key point from the audience. So the live witnesses are the ones that the committee knows will have emotional power. Any witness likely to throw a punch is relegated to the video.
  5. The committee primarily uses Republican votes, including former legitimate Trump insiders – with Hutchinson delivering a spellbinding first-hand account of life in Trump’s post-election West Wing.
  6. The committee includes “deep teases”, as the newscasts call them – hinting at future testimonies and leaving the public wanting more. Yesterday’s barn burner ended with a cliffhanger: Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney suggested Trump loyalists had tampered with witnesses – and said the committee was looking into the matter.
In this exhibit from yesterday’s hearing, President Trump is referred to by his Secret Service codename, Mogul. Exhibit: House Select Committee via AP

Reality check: Committee work is infinitely easier because there are no dissenting voices. Usually the minority party can stall and refute.

  • But the only two Republicans on the committee — Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — are fully aligned with the committee’s goals.

The bottom line: We don’t know if the committee members will dissuade Trump from running or winning in 2024. But they orchestrated six engrossing episodes – with the season finale yet to come.