Hewitt to leave `60 Minutes' but not CBS

News veteran, 80, to take network job

January 28, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

At the prodding of CBS, Don Hewitt next year will relinquish the reins of 60 Minutes, the program he has led since its creation 35 years ago, to a younger protege. He will instead assume a senior post within the network's news division.

"Look, you gotta realize we live in a different world," Hewitt, 80, said in an interview. "The trick is to bring young demographics into 60 Minutes without losing the current audience."

Hewitt is credited as a pioneer of many broadcast news conventions. As a young producer, he helped to shape the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Hewitt also led the first live broadcasts of political conventions and served as one of the first producers of a half-hour evening newscast.

But it was Hewitt's innovations with the establishment of 60 Minutes in September 1968 that helped to alter the way networks thought about their news operations.

First, the program was the first television news magazine, a blend of interviews of prominent figures with hard-hitting accounts on big-scale crime or public policy debates that had not yet received wide circulation. Hewitt and his staff pulled off a mix of high and low culture in an entirely new format.

"They really were one of the first to say that talking to interesting people is good television," said Leroy Sievers, executive producer of ABC News' Nightline. "It set the standard and showed there was an audience for serious news."

Second, the show turned a profit. In December 1975, when it was shifted to Sunday night, 60 Minutes first entered the Top 10 rated programs. It held that status for more than 21 years, including five stints as the nation's most-watched show. No other program has come close to that ratings success.

Instead of a write-off that allowed networks to claim they were performing an important public service, news divisions became a profit center of their own. (The trend was later furthered by the explosion of the morning news shows, led by NBC's Today.)

Network executives sought to reproduce its success, starting in the late 1970s with ABC News' 20/20, and ultimately with such news magazines as NBC's Dateline, CBS' 48 Hours and ABC's PrimeTime Live. Resources were sometimes drained from the signature nightly newscasts for the newer offerings.

In a sense, the news magazines were the "reality programming" of their day, often wildly popular and far less expensive to produce than hourlong dramas. Many have focused heavily on tales of "true crime" with far less attention paid to public policy or cultural issues than could be found on 60 Minutes.

"For better or for worse, 60 Minutes helped to establish the potential profitability of network news," said Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News. "Arguably, it's [also] set a standard that's been hard for its competitors to match. 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II reflect the interest of the people who work there rather than the results of a focus group or marketing survey."

While well-regarded, Hewitt's news judgment was not always considered pristine: In the face of a threatened lawsuit, he acquiesced in the 1995 decision by network officials to suppress a report on the "spiking" of tobacco to make it more addictive. After newspapers wrote of the incident, the network aired part of the withheld story. Heyward termed the initial decision, made before he became news president, a mistake.

In recent years, CBS has sought to transfer the show's control from Hewitt to his protege, Jeff Fager, 48, currently executive producer of the spinoff program 60 Minutes II. But Hewitt had resisted the idea until the network allowed him to stay on through June 2004 and promised him the post as executive producer for CBS News. Fager will be replaced on 60 Minutes II.

In an interview, Heyward said viewers should not expect wholesale changes among 60 Minutes' correspondents. But he acknowledged that 60 Minutes II would be a likely source for the ultimate replacements for Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney (both 84) and Morley Safer, 71.

Hewitt, who will continue to advise Fager, said the show's evolution is necessary for its survival. "The whole idea is to change the audience but not the basic broadcast," he said yesterday. "You've got to find characters who can tell their story better than you can tell it."

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