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The Jan. 6 TV hearings conclude with some really compelling cliffhangers


This is FRESH AIR. Now that the January 6 committee has presented its eighth and last televised hearing before it's scheduled to resume in the fall, our TV critic, David Bianculli, thinks it's time to look at it as he would any other new dramatic television series, comparing it to other similar productions and evaluating both its approach and its impact.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The obvious point of comparison for the House select committee's televised hearings about January 6 are the Watergate hearings, which took place almost 50 years earlier. They were held by the Senate, not the House, and were a more traditionally bipartisan committee. But the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which came to be known as the Watergate Committee, also had a Democratic chair and a Republican vice chair. Back in the summer of 1973, the chairman was Senator Sam Ervin, a slow-talking Southern Democrat from North Carolina. The same year those hearings concluded, Ervin cashed in on his newfound fame by releasing a record album, which included his rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." And the vice chair was Howard Baker, a Republican senator from Tennessee, who repeatedly asked what became the most famous question from the committee's entire investigation of the 1972 Watergate break-in and its subsequent cover-up.


HOWARD BAKER: The central question at this point is, simply put, what did the president know and when did he know it?

BIANCULLI: There are other parallels, too. In the current House hearings, one of the key witnesses, whose deposition was prerecorded and shown on tape, was White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. During the Watergate hearings, a White House counsel was a key witness as well. His name was John Dean. And he appeared on TV over two days in June, 1973, to give his bombshell testimony to the committee.


JOHN DEAN: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.

BIANCULLI: Dean's testimony was covered live by all the networks, which was a rarity. All the networks back in May 1973 meant only CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS. CNN wasn't even around then. But the commercial broadcast networks all showed the daytime hearings gavel to gavel - well, for the first week, anyway. After that, they rotated coverage on a daily basis so they wouldn't lose all that revenue from their popular soap operas. But PBS rebroadcast the daily hearings each night in primetime, presented with commentary by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. They became a familiar and famous news team on PBS and subsequently co-hosted the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. Two of the eight January 6 hearings - the opening session in last week's season finale - were televised in primetime also but live. And both, in TV terms, were big audience hits. The opener, shown across a variety of news and regular networks, drew an estimated 20 million viewers. Last week's final hearing drew nearly 18 million. Compare that to the most popular TV series of all of last season, the long-running scripted CBS drama "NCIS," which averaged under 11 million viewers.

It's easy to see why the January 6 hearings have drawn so many people. They're packaged like TV shows. Each episode has a plot and some special guest stars that are announced in advance. Instead of having all committee members question each witness, one or two representatives get to step up as a sort of guest host, as Elaine Luria, a Democrat from Virginia, did last Thursday as she introduced videotape of then-President Donald Trump recording his address to the nation on January 7, the day after the events at the Capitol.


ELAINE LURIA: We obtained the never-before-seen raw footage of the president recording his address to the nation that day on January 7, more than 24 hours after the last time he had addressed the nation from the Rose Garden. Let's take a look.

BIANCULLI: And we did look. And with those new videotapes and the testimonies and detailed timelines laid out by the committee, the most recent primetime episode of the hearings showed quite persuasively that what President Trump didn't do or say in the days surrounding January 6 may have been just as important and revealing as what he did.


DONALD TRUMP: I would like to begin by addressing the heinous attack yesterday. And to those who broke the law, you will pay. You do not represent our movement. You do not represent our country. And if you broke the law - you can't say that. I'm not going to - I already said, you will pay. The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defied the seat of destiny - it's defiled, right? Sorry. I can't see it very well.


TRUMP: OK, I'll do this. I'm going to do this. Let's go. But this election is now over. Congress has certified the results. I don't want to say the election's over. I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election's over. OK?

BIANCULLI: Committee members already have teased what might come when hearings are scheduled to resume in September - possible subpoenas for and testimony by reluctant witnesses and further examination into the erased Secret Service phone texts from January 5 and 6. Those missing texts are the modern equivalent of Richard Nixon's infamous 18-and-a-half-minute gap on the original White House secret recordings from Watergate. And those, too, were in the custody of the Secret Service until being subpoenaed and surrendered except for that one still mysterious conversation from the Oval Office, which we still haven't heard. Right now lots of mysteries remain regarding January 6. Only future hearings will determine what we uncover about and how we respond to this inflection point in our nation's history. But as a TV miniseries, the verdict is in. This particular TV show is a hit, and it's left us for the summer with some really compelling cliffhangers.

GROSS: David Bianculli is professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey.


SAM ERVIN: Oh, when darkness comes and pain is all around, like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down. I will lay me down.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be women's soccer pioneer and celebrated goalkeeper Briana Scurry. She won two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup. After a severe concussion injury ended her career and sent her into a downward spiral, she pawned the gold medals. The woman who helped her get the surgery she needed and buy back the gold medals is now Scurry's wife. Scurry has a new memoir called "My Greatest Save." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM SCOTT'S "SACK O' WOE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.