While televising congressional hearings may seem like a pretty contemporary custom, the media has been bringing cameras to Capitol Hill (and into courtrooms) for decades. The first live TV broadcast of a congressional meeting was the opening session of the 80th Congress back in January 1947. But it didn’t become a common practice until a few decades later, when the Watergate scandal bolstered public demand for greater government transparency.
On May 17, 1973—11 months to the day after the Watergate break-in—Sam Ervin, North Carolina senator and head of the committee tasked with investigating the scandal, kicked off the first of 51 days of public, televised hearings. Though the coverage took place during the day, the National Public Affairs Center for Television aired it every night in full on PBS stations, anchored by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer.
These “gavel to gavel” broadcasts continued until November 15 and featured testimony direct from all the president’s men—names infamous to anyone familiar with the Nixon administration’s abuses of power (or just anyone who’s seen All the President’s Men). The committee began with Nixon’s outer circle—people like Hugh Sloan Jr. and John Dean—and moved inward, hitting witnesses like John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman by July.
Needless to say, experiencing the revelatory hearings as they unfolded would require a time machine. To revisit them today, however, all you need is internet access. The American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), an organization run by the Library of Congress and Boston radio station WGBH, has made all the footage available to stream for free online. The digital exhibit also includes a comprehensive episode guide, transcripts, a cast of characters breakdown, and the videos from the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment debates the following year. What you won’t see is any defense from Richard Nixon himself: He resigned on August 8, 1974, before the House could vote to impeach him.
You can explore the AAPB’s archive here.