The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Primetime Watergate hearings helped make PBS a national network

Mired in a funding crisis — and the target of politicians — the hearings transformed public broadcasting

Former attorney general John N. Mitchell appears before the Senate Watergate Committee in Washington, D.C., on July 11, 1973. (AP)
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Last Thursday, an estimated 20 million Americans tuned in from 8 to 10 p.m. Eastern time to watch the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol hold a public hearing. What these viewers may not have realized is that this format — showing a congressional hearing in prime time and in full — has its roots in another scandal that began 50 years ago this week.

Watergate fundamentally changed Americans’ perception of many institutions: the presidency, Congress and even the television itself. Like the Jan. 6 hearings, Watergate was a television event worth staying up late for — and public television helped make it possible. The vibrant programming on public television — from “Sesame Street” to “PBS NewsHour” to “Masterpiece Theater” — was made possible by Watergate coverage that turned public television from a scattered collection of educational stations watched by thousands to a national network.

While networks rotated coverage of the Watergate hearings during the day, public television provided a service that people across America wanted: prime-time coverage. Public television stations across the country rebroadcast the day’s hearings each evening. By allowing watchers to draw their own conclusions from the evidence, the broadcast massively expanded public television’s viewership as millions of Americans were glued to their screens, watching a constitutional crisis unfold before their eyes.

This mattered because public television was at a crossroads at the time. The original Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 had created no long-term funding plan. Congress was afraid of creating a “fourth network” that risked becoming an organ for government propaganda or falling into the hands of liberals within the public television sphere. However, withholding long-term funding created the very problem lawmakers sought to avoid. Instead of sending the young system on its way without undue interference from Washington, it was thrown into the lap of an unwilling Nixon administration.

President Richard M. Nixon and his advisers veered from passive dislike to outright hostility toward PBS. Nixon aide Pat Buchanan once called public television the “wrong thing for the government to fund. We’ve got to zero it out, and that’s that.” Vice President Spiro Agnew called public television an “Eastern liberal” boondoggle orchestrated by an “enclosed fraternity of privileged men.” Clay Whitehead, head of the Nixon Office of Telecommunications Policy, planned to slash funding until power devolved to local stations, a move that won him no friends in the news media. “It’s kind of too bad Clay Whitehead wasn’t implicated in the Watergate scandal,” one commentator complained.

Of course, few people noticed Nixon’s attacks, because in 1970 few people watched public television. But when he vetoed a public television funding bill and his appointees to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting purged a slate of public affairs shows, the national media responded with outrage. One Los Angeles Times columnist accused Nixon of “lobotomizing this country’s broadcast media.” Journalist Robert MacNeil, himself a victim of the cuts, accused Nixon of wanting to silence “any attitude which does not indicate permanent genuflection before the wisdom and purity of Richard Milhous Nixon.”

This uproar provided the context in which Jim Karayn, head of the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT) — the Washington office responsible for national news-related public programming — saw an opportunity. He persuaded PBS President Hartford Gunn that the service should cover the Watergate hearings. To Karayn, doing so was not just about “trying to drive one more nail into the ghost of Richard Nixon.” Rather, he thought that it would provide the public “insight into the basic workings of American government.”

In a poll, 52 percent of PBS member stations supported the plan. The hearings would be rebroadcast in full during prime-time hours. The anchor team of MacNeil and Jim Lehrer would discuss the day’s events with a “brain trust” of experts at the end of each broadcast. At the end of the first day, Lehrer offered viewers something of a mission statement: “We are running it all each day because we think these hearings are important, and because we think it is important that you get a chance to see the whole thing and make your own judgments. Some nights, we may be in competition with a late, late movie. We are doing this as an experiment, temporarily abandoning our ability to edit, to give you the whole story, however many hours it may take.”

Americans paid attention. NPACT received over 70,000 supportive letters from citizens. June Wilson of Atlanta wrote: “Since the Watergate gavel-to-gavel rebroadcast began, I have not sewed on a button, taken up a hem, or put the yogurt on to make, since I work during the day I would be hard pressed to keep up with the testimony and the nuances which undeniably show themselves in such a hearing. Thus I arrive red-eyed and sleepy to work now and don’t care.” Letters like this poured in from across the country, exploding the assumption that only Washington and New York cared about the proceedings.

What about the hearings drew in millions of new public television viewers? One answer is the enthralling cast of characters. Every day, Americans watched surprisingly telegenic senators like Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) and Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), who along with the committee’s lawyers became “very important parts of our daily lives,” as Lehrer put it. Before them marched a parade of aides, burglars, agents and politicians. Viewers saw demonstrations of how to bug a telephone, how to photographically steal documents and other “dirty tricks.” The proceedings were “the stuff of spy novels,” as MacNeil and Lehrer liked to say.

At the same time the hearings were, in MacNeil’s words, “a kind of extended morality play,” in which Americans saw democracy at its worst and its best. They witnessed White House Counsel John Dean accuse Nixon of guilt in the Watergate coverup, and Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield reveal the president’s secretive taping of Oval Office conversations. They also saw the committee vote unanimously to subpoena Nixon — a historic first.

The coverage finally concluded on Nov. 15, after nearly 250 hours over 51 days. But its impact on public television lasted long after. It became a model for public-affairs television, including paving the path to the 1979 creation of C-SPAN. MacNeil and Lehrer so impressed the nation that they became the first anchors for what would be PBS NewsHour.

Watergate also distracted the administration from its attacks on public broadcasting. “Had Watergate never come to light,” argued historian David Stone, “the Nixon White House would likely have succeeded in muzzling public television.” There was poetic justice in this. “Nixon vetoed the [CPB] funding bill,” Karayn said at the time, “Now he’s given us our best programming.”

Most importantly, televising Watergate showed how television could operate differently. The notion that only Washington and New York audiences would be interested was shattered as newspapers from locales as far-ranging as Everett, Wash.; Clearwater, Fla.; and Galveston, Tex. all praised the hearings, and money streaming into stations gave managers the capital to produce local programming.

For months the hearings were must-watch TV, what Americanist Russell Peterson called “that rare event in which reality literally outstripped satire.” They were a fascinating caper that could be so engaging as to create “Watergate junkies” who showed up to work with “Watergate hangovers,” brought on by long nights in front of the television. But after they were over, viewers stayed: By 1980 nearly two-thirds of households tuned in at least once a month.

Today, 3 in 4 American households will watch PBS at some point during the year. It is routinely voted the most-trusted institution in American life. Odd as it may be to think, that would never have been possible without Richard M. Nixon, a man whose hostility to public television is well-documented. Nonetheless, we have him, and his “dirty tricksters,” and the Watergate investigators to thank for the thriving of this touchstone of American life.