From left, Sens. Lester Hunt (D-Wyo.), Herbert O’Conor (D-Md.), Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.), Alexander Wiley (R-Wis.) and Charles Tobey (R-N.H.) shake hands at the end of their highly watched organized-crime hearings. (Bill Allen/AP)

In early March 1951, a Philadelphia man was watching TV so intently that he became, as Life magazine later reported, “unaware of a fire until it had destroyed a shed in his back yard and swept into the upper story of his home.”

The man was not watching “The Howdy Doody Show.”

Like other popular TV shows, it had been preempted for a new form of television — a live congressional hearing like the one Mark Zuckerberg is now enduring. Across the country, millions tuned in as Sen. Estes Kefauver, a Democrat from Tennessee, conducted a sweeping investigation into organized crime.

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“It became apparent,” Life reported, “that at least one fifth of the population had absented itself from normal pursuits. All along the television cable it had suddenly gone indoors — into living rooms, taverns and clubrooms, auditoriums and back offices. There, in eerie half-light, looking at millions of small frosty screens, people sat as if charmed.”

Trolley cars rolled along empty. In New York, cabbies fought over passengers, whose numbers were few. Dishes went unwashed. Reporters even called housewives for their reactions.

“It is positively the most wonderful thing I ever saw,” one said.


Gambler Frank Costello, background, second from right, occupied the witness stand during televised hearings into organized crime. (AP)

While bits and pieces of congressional hearings back then had been shown on newsreels, the Kefauver hearings were the first time they were carried live across the country. The subject matter — racketeering, corruption, violence — combined with the immediacy of television was irresistible. Life described the novelty of it all, writing:

The very act of swearing in a witness — having stand and raise his right hand and say “I do” — was a strange solemnity. The face of the witness, waiting in fear, confidence or arrogance for the first question, was a new type of real-life drama. The expressions of senators, listening to the testimony with politeness, with outrage, sometimes with boredom and sometimes with the deceptive wariness of the hunter, were a new study in human emotions. … Everybody, including the kids, suddenly became expert in legal jargon; amateur attorneys sprouted in every living room and bar. A newspaper columnist, Ollie Crawford, summed it up perfectly: “Friend of ours hasn’t eaten for a week because his wife is judging the case.”

Kefauver did not set out to create a television “circus,” as critics and media scholars later called the hearings. In taking testimony in cities throughout the country, local TV stations carried some of the proceedings. But as the senator’s committee moved from city to city, word spread across the country about the unfolding drama. Advertisers became interested. Time magazine even sponsored TV coverage in an attempt to sell subscriptions.

The senator had lost control.

Congress was not happy, especially after one advertiser sent a telegram to the committee that said, according to an account in Journalism Quarterly, “National sales of our Pops-Rite brand for home popping are up 112 percent in last week. Your television audience apparently likes to munch popcorn as it hisses the villain.”

Kefauver responded by banning sponsorships.

“Kefauver felt commercial sponsorship made the hearings more like a medicine show than dignified proceedings,” Journalism Quarterly said. “As he told the National Association of Broadcasters, ‘Governmental proceedings are not a fit subject to aid the sale of a commercial product.’ ”

While he publicly seethed about the hearings turning into a spectacle, there is no doubt that TV was quite good for his own brand. Before the hearings, Kefauver was pretty much a nobody in national politics. After them, he beat out a fellow named John F. Kennedy for the vice presidential spot on Adlai Stevenson’s losing ticket in 1956.

Kefauver did win something, though, for his efforts.

In 1952, the Television Academy handed him an Emmy for special achievement.

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