It was one of the more unexpected takeaways of the night: in the age of six-second videos and frenetic social media posts around the clock, primetime set-piece television can still land a punch.
The first of the public hearings from the US congressional committee investigating the insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington by extremist supporters of Donald Trump on 6 January last year was delivered with all the choreographed panache of an old-school TV spectacular or the Super Bowl.
The broadcast was precision-timed (ending one minute short of two hours), tightly scripted and with a narrative arc designed for maximum emotional and political effect.
It mixed never-before-seen footage, evocative witnesses and succinct delivery of pertinent, headline-grabbing quotes in a setting where politicians are often better known for rambling and repetitive speeches.
Fifty years ago, the Senate Watergate committee made TV history with its raw, spontaneously chaotic but revelatory hearings into Richard Nixon’s election subversion.
On Thursday night, by contrast, the treatment of Trump’s election subversion was polished and pre-conceived, with the committee chair, Mississippi Democratic congressman Bennie Thompson, and vice-chair, Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, the daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney , reading off an autocue.
So carefully were the proceedings orchestrated that they could have come across as bland and overproduced.
But by the time the two leading panel members had laid out their case against Trump’s meticulously planned coup attempt, and after the nation had been assailed by harrowing footage of the January 6 violence and testimony by a female police officer describing being caught up in a “ war scene ”, it was anything but.
Peter Baker of the New York Times concluded that in the entire 246-year history of the US since the declaration of independence, “there was surely never a more damning indictment presented against an American president”.
The committee has five more hearings to go this month, after more than a year of investigation behind closed doors, as it tries to build a case alleging that Trump orchestrated a criminal conspiracy to overturn his election defeat and, on that January 6, incited a far-right mob to try to stop the official congressional certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory.
The next four are in the mornings with the last one, on 23 June, again scheduled for primetime, 8pm in Washington.
Thursday evening’s made-for-TV conception was the work of James Goldston, an experienced TV executive and former president of ABC News. His brief from the committee was to keep the event contained and focused, targeted at drawing and holding the attention of millions of Americans.
Under his direction, even the most visceral of the material unveiled at the hearing was finely produced. Previously unseen video from the British documentary-maker Nick Quested left nobody in doubt about the violence of that day.
Police officers were shown falling to the ground and stabbed with staves as the insurrectionists, egged on by Trump and led by the extremist Proud Boys, pummeled their way into a tunnel within the Capitol compound. Caroline Edwards, the Capitol police officer, described slipping in people’s blood – not the first time in the evening that Shakespearean imagery was invoked.
The hearing was primetime TV at its most impactful. Not that social media was neglected.
Before the hearing began Zoe Lofgren, one of the Democrats on the nine-member committee, told the Guardian that the panel was determined to bring social media on board “and make sure we are finding people where they are”.
Devastating snippets drawn from the depositions of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband Jared Kushner, were clearly devised two ways – potent on television, viral online.
The clip of Ivanka in which she said she accepted the assessment of the former attorney general Bill Barr that there had been no evidence of fraud sufficient to overturn the election lasted 11 seconds – perfect for CNN, Twitter and TikTok alike.
Kushner’s haughty comment to the committee that he interpreted as “whining” threats from White House lawyers to resign in the face of Trump’s potentially illegal actions could be boiled down to an even more shareable three seconds.
Such painstaking formulation is not a guarantee of success. The committee’s main goal is to show the American people how Trump attempted to subvert democracy and to persuade voters that action must now be taken to prevent a repeat performance in 2024.
Tell that to Fox News. While the hearing was going on, it turned its airspace over to Tucker Carlson, who duly used his primetime show to denounce the proceedings as propaganda.
Carlson had his own pithy social media pitch. “They are lying, and we’re not going to help them do it,” he said.