When the Senate Watergate hearings pre-empted daytime serials last spring, local stations were flooded with protest calls. By last week, when the hearings recessed, viewers were demonstrating a change of heart. In Minneapolis, for example, the switchboard of WCCO-TV blazed indignantly when people tuning in for Watergate found a baseball game instead. Forging ahead of the soaps and game shows, Watergate topped all daytime rivals in the latest Nielsen ratings.
The happiest beneficiaries of Watergate's popularity are Public Broadcast System stations, whose budgets were curbed at White House insistence and whose survival depends on viewer contributions. The nationwide network has received almost $1.5 million in donations since the hearings began. New York's WNET alone has collected $245,000, with gifts still pouring in. Said James Karayn, president of the National Public Affairs Center for Public Television, which produced the P.B.S. coverage of Watergate: "Nixon vetoed our bill, cut our funding. Now he's given us our best programming. It's sort of like being reborn."