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Political Interviews Yield Big Ratings in Era of the ‘Reality-Show President’

Since the presidential election two years ago, TV programs from “Fox & Friends” to “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” have benefited from a “Trump bump.” Now some shows and outlets are notching viewership surges by featuring people who bump Trump.

Stormy Daniels boosted fortunes all around the set-top box, delivering big ratings for “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “60 Minutes.” Next up has been James Comey, whose April 15 sit-down with George Stephanopoulos and ABC News resulted in a Sunday hour that generated 9.8 million viewers — not enough to win the night, but a number that nevertheless represents ABC’s best rating for a news program since Caitlyn Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer in 2015.

“Trump is a reality-show president,” noted Ben Bogardus, an assistant professor in the journalism department at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. “Now you have these accusers, who are also very entertaining. They know how to talk to the camera. They know how to appeal to an audience.”

A broad range of TV anchors — and even a late-night host — have had their moment with former FBI director Comey. Fox News Channel Chief Political Anchor Bret Baier will get his turn April 26 on his “Special Report.” “I’ve watched every single interview. I’ve read every single thing,” says Baier. “I’m watching intently to find things he has not been asked.”

In the past, a coveted newsmaker would grant an exclusive interview to a single outlet, and the pundits would keep spinning. In a news cycle dominated by President Trump, however, a guest like Comey is generating what seems to be an inexhaustible amount of interest — and the viewership that goes along with it. Judy Woodruff and PBS will get a crack at Comey on April 30.

People can’t get enough of what Baier calls “the Full Comey.” “He is the big story we are all following — coverage of the Trump administration and the fallout of his firing,” says Baier. “He has people who are critical of him on both sides of the aisle and people who are supportive of him,” making for broad appeal that doesn’t seem to quit.

Comey’s April 17 sit-down with Stephen Colbert gave the comedian’s “Late Show” its third-highest audience numbers since Colbert took over the program in 2015. Jake Tapper won his hour April 19 among all cable news rivals when Comey visited his “The Lead” on CNN.

Still, there are limits. Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC interview with Comey on the same day came in second to a Fox News broadcast of “Hannity” (whose host was recently at the center of his own news maelstrom).

Stormy Daniels has been somewhat less ubiquitous but has also proved to be ratings gold. The exotic dancer and adult-film actress says she had an affair with Trump in 2006, then allegedly signed a deal to keep quiet about it in exchange for money in the weeks before the 2016 election. Her late-January appearance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” pushed Kimmel 40% higher than wee-hours rivals in the advertiser-favored 18-to-49 demographic.

Since that time, Daniels has decided to speak more freely — to even more noticeable effect. Her March conversation with Anderson Cooper on CBS’ “60 Minutes” drew 22 million viewers — more than the audience for either CBS’ more recent Grammys broadcast or NBC’s last airing of the Golden Globes. It’s the best performance for the newsmagazine since more than 25 million viewers tuned in for a Steve Kroft interview with Barack and Michelle Obama after the 2008 election.

Comey and others remain fresh sources of news despite multiple interviews, says Baier. Maddow’s interview of Comey took place, for instance, just as some of his memos about his conversations with Trump had begun to leak. She didn’t need to ask him the same questions everyone else did; she had fresh material and a live guest. “I think that’s going to continue to happen in this news cycle,” Baier says. “There will still be a lot of bites at the apple.”

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