Government procedures rarely made riveting television, with the notable exception of scandals. Like the granddaddy of them all, the Watergate affair, where five burglars linked to President Richard Nixon’s administration were arrested in the Democratic National Committee offices. As pieces of the puzzle slowly emerged, Watergate began to be the hottest topic in the nation. So when the Senate unanimously voted to form an investigative committee and allow television coverage of the committee’s hearings, all three of the television stations knew they just struck a ratings goldmine.
On this day, May 17, in 1973 the Ervin Committee, more colloquially known as the Watergate Hearings began, with extensive gavel-to-gavel coverage by NBC, CBS and ABC.
In terms of viewership the two-month-long hearings were undoubtedly a success — surveys found as many as 85% of television viewers tuned into at least a part of the coverage. Whether the that coverage was for good or ill was less clear. Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox warned broadcasting the hearings might bias the witnesses and deny a fair trial, but Senator Sam Ervin, the chairman of the committee, thought the right of the American public to know outweighed the potential pitfalls.