TV Networks Gear Up for Kavanaugh Hearing Frenzy

"I hope that the cables don't make it into a sporting match," said veteran anchor Greta Van Susteren.

There's no such thing as a slow news day during the Trump administration, but this Thursday is shaping up to be one of the most action-packed and consequential days of the past 20 months.

While there's plenty of interest in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's meeting with President Trump, the main event will take place on Capitol Hill, where Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the California professor who has accused him of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford, will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Beleaguered both by Ford's claim and new reports of inappropriate behavior, Kavanaugh faces a hearing on Thursday that has the potential to completely sink his nomination. Television news companies, which have carefully covered every development in the Kavanaugh confirmation saga, are gearing up for the event and lining up both reporters and pundits.

As of Wednesday morning, several networks were still putting the finishing touches on their coverage plans. Fox News' coverage will be co-anchored by the straight-news team of Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who is still basking in the record viewership her show received for her Monday night sit-down with Kavanaugh and his wife. Over at CNN, anchors Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer will kick things off, joined by reporters like Dana Bash and experts like Jeffrey Toobin. ABC News will rely on morning anchor George Stephanopoulos, based in studio in New York, and evening news anchor David Muir, who will be on location in Washington, D.C. Gayle King, Norah O'Donnell, John Dickerson and Jeff Glor will all anchor CBS News' coverage. NBC News' coverage will lean on the network's stars, including Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd, Megyn Kelly and Andrea Mitchell. Brian Williams will play a big role in MSNBC's coverage.

"This is a made-for-TV melodrama: a live confrontation between the sexes that will resonate in deeply personal ways with male and female viewers alike," said Mark Feldstein, a professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland who called the hearing "a gigantic news event" for television.

The quantity of television news coverage is assured but the quality of that coverage is more in question. Some veterans of television news are cautioning the networks to keep the event in perspective and to treat it with the seriousness it requires.

"I hope that the cables don't make it into a sporting match. There are no winners here," said Greta Van Susteren, a lawyer who has anchored for all three major cable news networks.

She said the networks will all be taking the same pool video feed, and will be forced to distinguish themselves with onscreen graphics and on-air guests during breaks. She hopes the networks "are responsible," and, she said, "Don't litter up their screen with outrageous lower thirds that tend to diminish the importance of this."

Feldstein said the networks are covering the hearing as a "battle of the titans" clash. "It's hard for network executives to resist," he said. "This is ratings nectar, the kind of easily simplified, emotional issue that television intrinsically gravitates toward."

While Thursday's hearing draws clear parallels to Anita Hill's testimony during the 1991 confirmation hearing of now-Justice Clarence Thomas, Van Susteren said the cable news landscape has changed from the days when CNN was the only game in town.

"What's different now is the fact that we have three cable networks that are in fierce competition for eyeballs and that can be very provocative in terms of what they do," she said.