One Of Key Names In Tv's History

Appreciation Don Hewitt (1922-2009)

News Pioneer Capped Career By Inventing '60 Minutes'

August 20, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,

If the only thing that Don Hewitt had done in his six decades at CBS News had been to invent the phenomenally successful "60 Minutes," he would still have been one of the two most influential producers in the history of the medium.

But Hewitt's legacy reaches far beyond "60 Minutes." For starters, each time viewers tune into a network newscast, they are experiencing something partially invented in the frenzied and fertile imagination of Hewitt, who died Wednesday at his Bridgehampton, N.Y., home of pancreatic cancer. He was 86.

No other producer in television history, with the exception of the late Roone Arledge, has played a larger role in shaping the look of TV news - from nightly newscasts and prime-time newsmagazines to special events and election coverage. And Hewitt, whose list of credits reads like the index of a television news history book, was the more seminal figure.

He began in 1948 as associate director on the network's first 15-minute-long attempt at a nightly newscast, "Douglas Edwards with the News." He was also the director for "See It Now," Edward R. Murrow's landmark documentary series that ran from 1951 to 1958. When Edwards was replaced at the CBS nightly news anchor desk in 1963, Hewitt became executive producer of the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite."

Under his direction, CBS became in 1948 the first television network to cover the national political conventions. Hewitt oversaw convention coverage every four years through 1980. In 1960, he directed the television debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon - an event that, for better or worse, changed the way campaigns are conducted. He directed CBS' around-the-clock coverage of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and produced coverage of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

And that list only takes the narrative of this incredible career up to 1968, when Hewitt invented "60 Minutes," television's most honored (75 Emmys) and most popular program.

"Don Hewitt was probably the greatest news producer in television," ABC News anchor Barbara Walters said Wednesday. "He was original, creative, far-seeing and had an amazing gut instinct. To lose Walter Cronkite and Don Hewitt at almost the same time is truly the end of a remarkable era in news."

There was no such thing as a television newsmagazine before Hewitt came up with "60 Minutes." "Dateline," "20/20," "48 Hours" are all made in its image. In 2004 when he retired, I wrote a profile of Hewitt. I interviewed him and many of his colleagues and critics. Two stories from the tens of thousands of words have stuck with me since. They speak to his character and landmark contributions to shaping the medium that so shapes our lives.

One morning in 1952, he was eating breakfast in a Chicago diner. In town to direct coverage of the Republican National Convention, he was puzzling over how to identify speakers at the podium without interrupting their remarks with a voice-over. Then he noticed a menu board with "little white letters stuck on a black background" on the wall.

"Bingo! It suddenly hit me: White letters superimposed on a black background is the way you superimpose names on the screen because the camera will not pick up the black, and you can superimpose that shot over anything you want to and show the letters and the picture simultaneously," Hewitt said.

When the waitress came to take his order, he said: "I'll have the board."

He bought it for $45 and within hours, the menu board - and the concept of television subtitles - made their national debut on CBS.

Thanks to such ingenuity, Hewitt's rise at the network was meteoric - but not without bumps. In 1965, at the age of 32, he was fired as executive producer of Cronkite's nightly newscast by Fred Friendly, another legendary figure who was then president of CBS News. It was perhaps inevitable that the two towering figures would bump heads.

"Friendly called me in one day and he said, 'Don, the Cronkite news is not big enough for you - you're so much bigger than that. I'm going to take you off the nightly news and give you a special unit.' "

One of Hewitt's new tasks, he was told, was to rethink the way the network presented documentaries.

"Now, I'm stupid enough to believe all that," Hewitt said in an interview with me for that 2004 profile, "So, I leave Friendly feeling great, and I walk into the office of Bill Leonard, who's the vice president of CBS News and also my pal, and I say, 'Bill, guess what? Friendly just told me the evening news is not big enough for me, and he wants me to have a special unit all my own. Isn't that great?' "

"And Leonard looks up from his desk and says, 'Kid, you just got fired.' "

In his CBS memoirs, "In the Eye of the Storm," Leonard says Friendly felt Hewitt's "talent lacked depth and intellectual commitment." But Hewitt attacked his new assignment with his usual enthusiasm, imagination and dogged determination to be the best - and invented "60 Minutes."

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