Review: Dick Cavett’s Watergate

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of President Nixon announcing his resignation live on television. To mark the occasion, last night PBS aired an hour-long documentary called Dick Cavett’s Watergate. It featured both archival footage from Cavett’s late-night ABC series, which ran from December 1969 to January 1975, and recent interviews with Cavett, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and others.

Anyone who broadly knows the story of Watergate probably won’t learn anything new about the scandal from the documentary but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating. What Dick Cavett’s Watergate does offer is a view of Watergate unlike any other. Cavett managed to interview just about everybody who was involved. All the familiar faces sat down with him at some point during or after the scandal: Woodward, Bernstein, Liddy, Ehrlichman, Dean, Kissinger. Even President Ford.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the archival footage, both from The Dick Cavett Show and other sources, was accurately presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. Other recent documentaries, notably Pioneers of Television on PBS and The Sixties on CNN, have cropped or stretched old TV footage to a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. Unfortunately, like those programs, Dick Cavett’s Watergate did not provide dates for any of the archival footage, which always frustrates me. For example, the footage of Cavett interviewing President Ford near the end of the documentary took place after Ford left the White House, but that isn’t made clear.

With one exception, all of the archival footage from The Dick Cavett Show — sourced from videotape — is in decent shape. It’s not perfect but the quality is generally quite good. About 11 minutes into the documentary, there are lengthy excerpts from an episode that featured Woodward and Bernstein. This footage is obviously from film and it is in very rough shape. Why is the quality of this footage and only this footage so bad? I found the answer in a PBS.org Q&A with John Scheinfeld, who directed, wrote and produced Dick Cavett’s Watergate.

It turns out that Cavett didn’t have a videotape copy of this particular show (which I believe originally aired on May 13th, 1973) in his archive. A search was conducted and eventually a portion of the Woodward/Bernstein interview was found. Here’s how Scheinfeld described the recovery:

Buried deep in the vault of ABC, the network for which Cavett did his late-night show from 1969 to 1975, there was a color kinescope of 12-minutes [from] the Woodward-Bernstein-Cavett interview that had been recorded by persons unknown to be used in a 1973 news program. A kinescope, by the way, is a primitive form of recording a television show that had been developed in the 1940s when videotape and videotape recorders had not yet been invented. A 16mm movie camera is trained on a TV screen and captures the show on actual film with the sound patched in from the TV speaker. This method was long out of date by 1973 and yet, for some bizarre reason (for which we are eternally grateful) one was made of this broadcast and we were able to use it in our film.

Although the circumstances surrounding this particular recovery are bizarre (a kinescope in 1973?), it just goes to show that missing television could be out there if only somebody has the will and the resources to look for it.

Dick Cavett’s Watergate is only an hour long. It’s a quick hour and I’m confident that it could easily have run 90 minutes if not two hours without feeling long or repetitive. It’s always nice to see a documentary that fully embraces the use of television as an archival resource the way this one does. I highly recommend it, particularly to those like me who weren’t alive during the Watergate years. Check your local PBS listings for repeat information or watch it online at PBS.org.

1 Comment

  • Jeff McGinnis says:

    Enjoyed the article. The reason for the existing kinescope clip was probably due to the practice, still prevalent in the early 1970s, of editing network news specials on film. Film cameras were also still being used for some location news footage for the nightly news. The transition to all videotape was made incrementally as smaller and more mobile location video cameras were rolled into wide use. A program, like the one described, would also have been of interest for academic use, another reason for continuing to edit some news programs on film. Videotape playback equipment was just beginning to be used commonly in schools and institutions in the mid-late 1970s. The tape to film transfer was necessary for compatibility and is seen often in clips used in filmed specials of the period.

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