Al Vecchione, a television producer who helped broadcast the Senate Watergate hearings to a national audience and who later made crucial contributions that allowed the “PBS NewsHour” to rival commercial news programs in prestige if not in profit, died May 24 at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 86.

The cause was lung cancer, said his daughter Julie Vecchione DeSimone.

Vecchione, an immigrant’s son who credited his career path to a fortuitous ride on the New York City subway, was an unlikely helmsman of the “NewsHour” program. Created in 1975 by Robert MacNeil, based at public television’s WNET studios in New York, and Jim Lehrer, a Texan transplant at WETA in Washington, D.C., the show aimed to upend broadcast news by focusing on a single story each night.

Originally titled “The Robert MacNeil Report,” it changed its name to “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” in 1976, when Vecchione came on as executive producer and the program began reaching a national audience on PBS affiliates around the country.

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The show became the nation’s first hour-long nightly news broadcast in 1983, when it doubled its length, struck out on its own and re-christened itself “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.” At the time, it was the only major nightly news show to be independently produced and owned by its anchors.

Although the program’s exhaustive coverage of public affairs was sometimes criticized as dull – its anchors once quipped that the show’s motto was “We dare to be boring” – it became a giant of public television, reaching an audience of more than 3 million people by 1990 and drawing sponsorships from PepsiCo and AT&T.

“Our approach has always been to take on the serious and important issues that we think people need to know about, not the ones that will titillate them,” said Vecchione, who was named president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions in 1983 and worked on the “NewsHour” and related documentaries until he retired in 1996.

“PBS NewsHour” is now produced entirely by WETA and anchored by Judy Woodruff. Co-anchor Gwen Ifill died in November.

Vecchione was “critical to the success of the show,” said MacNeil, who described Vecchione as “an equal partner” whose skill in managing budgets and people was integral to “NewsHour’s” long-term survival.

“He was the guy who gave us the confidence that we could do this,” Lehrer said. “He supported everything that we did and made sure that we had the resources to get it done.”

The show’s origins go back to 1973, when Vecchione was general manager of a short-lived news service called the National Public Affairs Center for Television.

watergate coverage

With Lehrer and MacNeil as its lead correspondents, the outlet aired gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings, which lasted more than 300 hours, helped trigger impeachment proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon and renewed interest in public television.

Broadcasts were carried live by some PBS affiliates and, most significantly, aired again at prime time, allowing an estimated 85 percent of U.S. households to watch some portion of the proceedings.

Although commercial networks aired parts of the hearings as well, those broadcasts ceased when star witnesses such as former White House counsel John Dean stopped taking the stand. Vecchione was adamant that his outlet continue airing the hearings, ratings be damned.

“Some elements of the proceedings are less dynamic than others,” he told the New York Times in November 1973, “but we think that that determination is best left to historians.”

Vecchione took a more active role in national politics in 1976, when he took a leave of absence to serve as a television consultant to Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter. He also produced the party’s national convention that summer in New York, tailoring its timing and tone for a television audience.

His attention to detail extended to the structure of the speaker’s rostrum, which Vecchione designed with vertical partitions as a throwback to the platform used in the party’s 1924 convention, also held in New York.

“If the average home viewer does not make that esoteric connection,” wrote Times reporter Joseph Lelyveld.

“Vecchione hopes that the viewer will, at least, think of something authentically American, such as a small-town bandstand.”