Congressional certification of the Electoral College vote is the sort of rudimentary government business typically relegated to C-SPAN: un-telegenic, suspenseless, staid.
This is not a typical time. On Wednesday, every major TV network was preparing a marathon day of minute-by-minute coverage of potential political chaos, as allies of President Trump in the House and Senate planned for a last, futile effort to subvert the results of the election.
Broadcast stations are set to pre-empt daytime programming, and cable networks have top anchors on standby. The debate in the Capitol is expected to last for hours, with its climax — the confirmation of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory — possibly spilling into prime-time.
How Vice President Mike Pence handles the session’s conclusion, when he is expected to formally ratify Mr. Biden as the winner despite ongoing pressure from Mr. Trump not to do so, will be a made-for-TV moment in itself.
Television had not been invented the last time a political party overtly tried to subvert the results of a democratic election on the floor of Congress; seeking precedent, historians have pointed to the Reconstruction era. Wednesday’s coverage will break new ground in 24-hour TV news, although the proceedings in each chamber will continue to be available, unfiltered and without punditry, on C-SPAN and C-SPAN2.
For viewers seeking a more pointed perspective, the big cable networks were happy to fill in the gap.
CNN did not mince words in its preview of the day’s events, airing an on-screen banner that read, “SOON: CONGRESS TO CONFIRM BIDEN’S WIN DESPITE TRUMP’S COUP ATTEMPT.” Fox News was the only major network, besides Fox Business and Newsmax, to carry Mr. Trump’s rambling speech on Wednesday to supporters in Washington in full, as the president presented a series of false and repeatedly disproved claims about so-called electoral fraud. (Fox News continued to carry Mr. Trump’s remarks even as Mr. Pence gaveled in the joint session.)
The Capitol drama was just one of the stories that network executives were juggling on Wednesday. Results were still trickling in from Tuesday’s high-stakes runoff races in Georgia, which will determine control of the United States Senate.
Overnight, the major networks projected a win for one Democratic challenger, the Rev. Raphael Warnock. (Even Newsmax, the upstart network that has catered to Trump partisans, conceded Mr. Warnock’s win.) The other Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, also appeared likely to clinch a victory, but no major news outlet had declared him the winner by midday. After a long night of coverage, Steve Kornacki on MSNBC, John King on CNN and Bill Hemmer on Fox News remained on standby next to their touch-screen maps.
Cameras and correspondents were also fanned out across Washington in anticipation of protests by supporters of Mr. Trump. Images of boarded-up businesses and phalanxes of police in riot gear were widely broadcast.
And as the president spoke from an outdoor stage near the White House, reports emerged that Mr. Biden would choose Merrick Garland, the federal judge whose Supreme Court nomination was torpedoed in 2016, as his attorney general.
A glance at Fox News at 10:45 a.m. Eastern illustrated the collision of news stories. Part of the screen showed footage of a ballot counting room in Georgia’s Fulton County; a smaller window carried live coverage of pro-Trump protesters preparing to rally in Washington.
How Trump partisans react to the ratification of Mr. Biden’s victory was a topic of much discussion. On Wednesday’s “Fox & Friends,” the anchor Brian Kilmeade felt the need to warn his viewers that despite Mr. Trump’s fantastical claims, Mr. Pence was powerless to affect the election results.
“I feel bad for Mike Pence; he’s been as loyal as the day is long,” Mr. Kilmeade said. He added that Mr. Trump’s belief that Mr. Pence could somehow unilaterally decertify voting results “is not true.” Hours later, Mr. Pence issued a letter confirming that he had no ability to change the reality of Mr. Trump’s defeat.
Fox News ratings have dropped in recent weeks as pro-Trump viewers balked at its anchors’ acknowledgment that Mr. Biden will take office this month. Supporters of the president may not have enjoyed the analysis on Wednesday from Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” anchor, who reflected on the remarkable events about to unfold.
“Usually, this is the point when everybody comes together,” Mr. Wallace told viewers. “And losing hurts, but they sit there and say, ‘For the greater good of the country — and in keeping with our democracy and our Constitution — we are going to recognize that the person who got the most electoral votes won the election.’ And the fact that that’s not going to happen today is kind of sad.”