Late Tuesday night, the hottest news network in the country may have been the YouTube livestream* of the Texas State Senate. Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis had spent 11 hours on the floor filibustering a bill put forth by Republicans that would effectively forced the closure of most of the clinics in the state that provide abortions. It was no mere procedural filibuster but an actual, old-fashioned, talk-’til-you-stop drama, in which Davis had to hold the floor—without bathroom breaks, rest, or even leaning on anything. (She wore a back brace to support her standing.) The clock was ticking toward midnight, when the special session of the Senate would end.
It was a drama made for live TV. But it played out almost exclusively online.
As protesters massed in the gallery, the GOP majority attempted to close debate and bring a vote, and Democrats maneuvered to stall after their rivals forced Davis to stop speaking on procedural grounds, well over 100,000 YouTube viewers were tuned to the channel–closer to 200,000 as zero hour approached. That’s a six-figure viewership, after primetime in most time zones, watching legislators argue over Robert’s Rules of Order and who properly held the floor.
You might think that this kind of ticking-clock politics drama would be a magnet for cable news. TV news, after all, devoted considerable coverage when GOP Sen. Rand Paul held a rare one-man-speaking filibuster on the floor of the Senate earlier this year. There was a deadline, an explosive social issue, some charged gender politics in the room–“At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?” demanded Sen.Leticia Van De Putte to roars from the crowd–and rowdy protesters shaking the room with chants of “Let her speak! Let her speak!” Aaron Sorkin could not have scripted it better, though he may have polished up the dialogue a bit.
But the late-night drama exposed a reality of 24/7 cable news: except among the biggest of all news events, it’s really more like 18/7, maybe even 18/5. Past prime time, the major news channels turn to reruns or go essentially on autopilot. As midnight approached in Austin, political observers were watching a nailbiter on YouTube; but on cable, you could see an interview about Iraq on Fox, a climate debate on MSNBC, and, toward the end of Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, a report on an attempt to ban the wearing of saggy pants.
You can argue what this coverage says about the priorities or biases of the cable-news outfits, but it at least is a commentary on their structure and resources. Though they can raise their metabolism when there’s an ongoing story with the promise of big ratings, there’s also a lot of filler and slack in their schedules, especially in the off hours. For all their promise of live coverage, cable TV relies a lot on canned content. So Austin may have been awake, but the story fell in the sleepytime zone for 24-hour news.
It was online and in social media where the story really took off, and even played out. As partisans from both sides traded shots on YouTube, Twitter became an extension of the Senate gallery, with users weighing in (President Obama’s twitter account directed attention to the filibuster at one point), cracking jokes, and even offering unsolicited advice to the legislators on the points of Texas parliamentary procedure.
The night closed with the kind of chaotic, acrimonious, tense finish you would think a TV news producer would love. There was a hurried attempt to pass the bill, Republicans initially claimed victory, and then they retracted the claim, as the vote was reportedly found not to have been completed until after midnight. (Again, social-media viewers eagerly offered their volunteer time checking the timelines and going to the video replay.)
In Austin, it was a late exhausting night, as it was for politics and news junkies online. Wendy Davis didn’t get much rest yesterday. You can’t say the same for TV.
*Update: Credit where due, by the way, to the Texas Tribune, which supplied the livestream that made this entire social-media episode possible. An earlier version of this post featured a screengrab image crediting the Tribune’s stream, but it was later replaced with the above video.