"Watergate" is synonymous with a series of events that began with a botched burglary and ended with the resignation of a U.S. President. The term itself formally derives from the Watergate building in Washington, D.C., where, on the night of 17 June 1972, five burglars were arrested in the Democratic National Committee offices. Newspaper reports from that point began revealing bits and pieces of details that linked the Watergate burglars with President Richard Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign. The president and his chief assistants denied involvement, but as evidence of White House complicity continued to grow, the U.S. Congress was compelled to investigate what role the Watergate matter might have played in subverting or attempting to subvert the electoral process.

The U.S. Senate, by a 77-to-0 vote, approved a resolution on 7 February 1973, to impanel the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate Watergate. Known as the Ervin Committee for its Chairperson, Senator Sam Ervin, the Committee began public hearings on 17 May 1973, that shortly came to be known as the "Watergate Hearings."

Television cameras covered the Watergate hearings gavel-to-gavel, from day one until 7 August. 319 hours of television were amassed, a record covering a single event. All three commercial television networks then in existence--NBC, CBS, and ABC--devoted an average of five hours per day covering the Watergate hearings for their first five days.

The networks devised a rotation plan that, beginning on the hearing's sixth day, shifted coverage responsibility from one network to another every third day. Any of the three networks remained free to cover more of the hearings than required by their rotation agreement, but only once did the networks choose to exercise their option. All three networks elected to carry the nearly 30 hours of testimony by key witness and former White House counsel John Dean.

The non-commercial Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired the videotaped version of each day's Watergate hearing testimony during the evening. Many PBS station managers who were initially reluctant to carry such programming found that as a result of the carriage, station ratings as well as financial contributions increased.

As the Ervin Committee concluded its initial phase of Watergate hearings on 7 August 1973, the hearing's television audience had waned somewhat, but a majority of viewers continued to indicate a preference that the next hearing phase, scheduled to begin on 24 September, also be televised. The networks, however, felt otherwise. The Ervin Committee continued the Watergate hearings until February 1974 but with only scant television coverage.

Television viewers were attracted to the Watergate hearings in impressive numbers. One survey found that 85% of all U.S. households had tuned in to at least some portion of the hearings. Such interest was not universal, however. In fact, Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox had argued that television's widespread coverage of Watergate testimony could endanger the rights of witnesses to a fair trial and in doing so, could deprive Americans of ever hearing the full story of Watergate. The Ervin Committee refused Cox's request to curtail coverage, saying that it was important that television be allowed to carry Watergate testimony to the American public firsthand.

On 6 February 1974, a new phase of Watergate began when the U.S. House of Representatives voted 410-to-4 to authorize the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether sufficient grounds existed to impeach President Nixon. If so, the Committee was authorized to report necessary articles of impeachment to the full House.

The Judiciary Committee spent late February to mid-July 1974 examining documents and testimony accumulated during the Senate's Watergate hearings. When this investigatory phase ended, the Judiciary Committee scheduled public deliberations for 24-27, 29 and 30 July to debate what, if any, impeachment recommendations it would make to the House. Three articles of impeachment eventually were approved by the Committee, recommending that the House begin formal impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon.


The decision to televise Judiciary Committee meetings was not immediate nor did it meet with overwhelming approval. Only after several impassioned pleas from the floor of the U.S. House that such an extraordinary event should be televised to the fullest extent did the House approve a resolution to allow telecast of the Judiciary Committee's impeachment deliberations. The Committee itself had final say on the matter and voted 31-to-7 to concur with the decision of their House colleagues. One major requirement of the Judiciary Committee was that television networks covering the committee not be allowed to break for a commercial message during deliberations.

The Judiciary Committee began its televised public debate on the evening of 24 July. The commercial networks chose to rotate their coverage in the same manner as utilized during the Senate Watergate hearings. What's more, the commercial networks telecast only the evening portions of Judiciary Committee deliberations, while PBS chose to telecast the morning and afternoon sessions as well. As a result, television viewers were provided nearly 13 hours of coverage for each of the six days of Judiciary Committee public deliberations.

Eventually, the full House and Senate voted to allow television coverage of impeachment proceedings in their respective chambers, once assurances were made that the presence of television cameras and lights would not interfere with the president's due process rights. Final ground rules were being laid and technical preparations for the coverage were underway when President Nixon's resignation on 9 August 1974, brought the impeachment episode to an end.

-Ronald Garay


Garay, Ronald. Congressional Television: A Legislative History. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Hamilton, James. The Power to Probe. New York: Random House, 1976.

Kurland, Philip B. "The Watergate Inquiry, 1973." In, Schlesinger, Arthur M., and Roger Bruns, editors. Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792-1974. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1975.

U.S. House. House Committee on the Judiciary. Impeachment of Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, 93d Cong., 2d sess., 1974, H. Rept. 93-1305.

U.S. Senate. Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. The Final Report, 93d Cong., 2d sess., 1974, S. Rept. 93-981.


See also Political Processes and Television; U.S. Congress and Television