“Gavel-to-Gavel”: The Watergate Scandal and Public Television


In February 1973, James Karayn, the president of the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT), public broadcasting’s unit in Washington responsible for producing national news-related programming, had the daring idea of broadcasting the Senate Watergate hearings in full, or “gavel-to-gavel,” rebroadcasting each day’s complete proceedings in the evening for those unable to watch during the day. The result was one of the most popular series in public broadcasting history. From May 17 to November 15, Americans all over the country tuned in for the 8 PM ET taped coverage, catapulting a public television system in its infancy into the national consciousness. Viewers were captivated by the memorable personalities behind the senators’ table, the stories—equal parts fantastical, banal, and horrifying—told by the witnesses before the Committee, and the revelations that threatened to force President Richard Nixon out of office. And through it all, they had the steady, balanced commentary of anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, who stowed their editorializing to allow viewers to come to their own conclusions. This online exhibit presenting the evening rebroadcasts (as well as the subsequent broadcasts of the House Impeachment hearings) will allow contemporary viewers to experience the hearings as so many did in 1973, in full, “gavel-to-gavel.”

The Coverage Explained

The broadcasts of the Senate Watergate hearings cover 51 days of “gavel-to-gavel” coverage. Each episode begins with about five minutes of commentary from anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, including an “hour by hour line-up” of what happened in that day’s hearings. The hearings range from two to seven hours in length, with breaks only for station identification during pauses in the hearings. At the end of each broadcast, MacNeil and Lehrer close with 10-20 minutes of commentary with experts and interviews conducted by correspondent Peter Kaye.

The Senate Watergate Committee conducted its investigation in three phases: Watergate (May 17 - September 25), Campaign Practices or “Dirty Tricks” (September 26 - November 6), and Campaign Finance (November 7 - November 15). Due to Majority Counsel Sam Dash’s strategy of building a case before moving on to the “star witnesses,” the hearings begin with comparatively small fish before moving up the food chain to Nixon’s inner circle in July. After the Committee returned from recess in September, they questioned less powerful witnesses and had fewer viewers tune in as a result.

The House impeachment hearings took place over seven days of public hearings, the first on May 9, 1974, during which the Committee entered executive session and ejected the television cameras. The Committee reopened its doors to TV on July 24 to debate articles of impeachment, which they concluded after six sessions on July 30. The hearings were anchored by Jim Lehrer and Paul Duke and continued in the format developed for the Watergate hearings. Since some of the House sessions took place at night, the broadcasts are a combination of live and taped coverage.

How to Use This Exhibit

To view the full “gavel to gavel” coverage, click on The Watergate Coverage or The Impeachment Coverage in the side bar. There you will find guides to each episode, links to transcripts, and highlights to peruse. To help identify people in the videos, the Cast of Characters page includes photos and titles for the important figures in the hearings. The Watergate Scandal, 1972-1974 page gives an explanation of the who, what, when, where, and why of Watergate to help guide you through the coverage. If you would like a more in depth essay on the significant role that Watergate played in the history of public broadcasting, please click on the Watergate and Public Broadcasting link.

Highlights from the Watergate Coverage

Click play below to see highlights from NPACT's coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings. To read the transcript of the compilation, click here.

Next: The Watergate Scandal, 1972-1974

Herbert Block. Late Returns. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-hlb-08225. A 1973 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress