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60 Minutes Keeps Ticking

40 years into a historic run, the CBS newsmagazine continues to strive and thrive 9/19/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The past is prologue at the offices of 60 Minutes.

You see that with a glance at the walls in the dimly lit lobby of the newsmagazine's West 57th Street offices. On one wall, Don Hewitt's 2008 Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award hangs over a peace lily. It was Hewitt—a onetime colleague of Murrow's at CBS—who masterminded the classic show, remaining as executive producer from its 1968 premiere until he retired at 81 in 2004.

Lining a brighter wall are dozens of photographs of the show's singular segments. Some are of a distant vintage: Original correspondent Mike Wallace eating pizza with Barbra Streisand at a cafeteria counter; Ed Bradley at Colorado's Supermax prison with Timothy McVeigh; the show's five 1995 correspondents with Bill Clinton on the eve of the bombing of Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia.

But many photos are from recent seasons, celebrating the show's uncanny ability to lend perspective to its times. Steve Kroft talks with Prince Charles; Scott Pelley rides in a jeep with rebels in Darfur.

Given the show's unprecedented success and startling Nielsen track record, it's easy to forget that 60 Minutes—now celebrating its 40th anniversary as an institution—has always been something of an anomaly. Hewitt's brilliant idea to mix up the reports, offering something for everyone each Sunday night, and to never suffer fools, has become part of the TV fabric, something that caught on and inspired imitators and pretenders.

But while most anomalies get only their 15 minutes, 60 remains, and thrives, even as viewing attention is further furcated by a multi-platform world. If it continues to do so despite the competition, it will be because, as Jeff Fager—executive producer of the show since Hewitt's departure—puts it, the show has stayed true to its “brand.” Despite the overuse of the word this election season, 60 Minutes is certainly among the only true mavericks you'll see on television every week.

“It's the quality of the storytelling,” Fager says. “That's the mother ship.”

Changing TV by Staying the Same

60 Minutes is the longest-running primetime show on television. (Only NBC's Meet the Press has been on longer.) It has achieved this extraordinary longevity, at least in part, by staying the same: the ticking clock; the title boards with the producer credits; the signature mix of pieces—the “high Murrow and the low Murrow,” as Hewitt always put it. The show topped the Nielsen ratings a record five times and shattered the record for consecutive seasons finishing in the top 10, doing so 23 times.

And, reminds Hewitt, “The storytellers were always as important as the stories.”

The famous egos of the famous correspondents made sharing both the work and the spotlight combustible. But it is precisely this mix of competitive personalities—themselves a study in primetime longevity—that has made 60 Minutes the most successful newsmagazine in a genre littered with defunct products.

Hewitt began in 1968 by hiring the lesser-known Wallace as a counterweight to the avuncular Harry Reasoner. Morley Safer started two years later, in 1970.

“We built a cast that could have been a Broadway show,” Hewitt continues. “Broadcasters are what makes broadcast. And I decided I was going to have a star-studded cast.”

60 Minutes popularized the correspondent-as-reporter model of investigative and interview TV journalism. Wallace was the tenacious gotcha guy, ambushing mendacious business executives. Safer ferreted out obscure slice-of-life stories with wide-eyed wonder. Ed Bradley, who started in 1981, with his earrings and aura of cool, may have been the go-to celebrity interlocutor, but he was still a formidable sleuth, exposing injustice and corruption, most famously in the Duke lacrosse rape scandal, his last big story before his death in 2006.

And while the ranks of tenacious and equally competitive producers—Bob Anderson, Michael Radutzky—are the backbone of 60 Minutes, the show has been inextricably intertwined with the personas of its correspondents. Such a model seems outdated in today's media environment where sound bites have trumped reasoned reporting, the investigative genre is on life-support, and news stars are anointed and discarded with stunning regularity. But it continues to work at 60 Minutes, which remains true to its original vision.

“I don't want to reinvent it,” Fager says. “I just want to make it better story by story, week by week. You're only as good as next Sunday's broadcast.”

Jumping on Stories

A newer crop of correspondents has been variously integrated into the show's mix. Kroft, a regular since 1989, has done singular work on national security and foreign affairs. Scott Pelley—who made his bones covering the impeachment of President Clinton—is the linchpin of the new ranks, taking on Wallace's snooping-reporter mantle. Lara Logan has found in 60 Minutes the airtime she so keenly desires for her war reporting. CNN's Anderson Cooper, who became a contributor in 2006, has made Africa his bailiwick, reporting on the bloody tribal war in Congo and malnutrition in Niger. Katie Couric has done a handful of pieces since joining CBS News two years ago, and has made no secret of her desire to do more.

If there has been a shift at all, it's in the necessary de-emphasis on personalities, giving way to a more story-driven approach. “Mike Wallace stood out on his own as such an icon and such a driving force,” Fager says. “They are [all] such unique characters.”

Wallace, now 90, holds the title Correspondent Emeritus, and has since 2006. His last report, on Roger Clemens, aired in January. On West 57th Street, Wallace's 60 Minutes office is now in disarray. The walls bear the bleached-out scars of frames removed after decades as belongings are sent to Wallace's home. The office next to Wallace's is also in a state of transition. It is being renovated for Cooper and is about one-third the size of Wallace's.

It remains to be seen if the new correspondents will achieve the eminence of Hewitt's original cast. “Is Scott Pelley going to be as big as any of [the past correspondents] were? Maybe,” Fager says. “He's a young person. He's going to be on the air for a long time. It's hard to judge what Lara Logan is going to be in 10 years. But boy, she's made a mark in a short period of time.”

Expanding its Reach

60 Minutes is dealing with the same challenges that the nightly newscasts are grappling with. In 2006, the show began aggregating several segments a week on Yahoo, which helped to expose it to an Internet audience that is significantly younger than the show's TV audience, which at 60 is the oldest in primetime. In March, 60 Minutes clocked 17 million streams on Yahoo. The two-year deal is in the process of being renewed. And with CBS Corp.'s acquisition of Web portal CNET, executives see further opportunities to monetize news content.

“Where we've found a foothold on another platform,” Fager says, “we've done incredibly well. It's a sign that if your stories are strong [and] unique, the content will play online.”

But the television broadcast remains the portal through which profits flow. The show ranked 23rd last season in total viewers, up three places from the previous season.

As is the case with many nightly newscasts, 60 Minutes' audience is not the demographic most coveted by Madison Avenue executives. But, says Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp., “If demos mattered on that show, it would have been off the air a long time ago. We sell 60 Minutes on the basis of an older, generally well-educated demographic. And that's all that matters. 60 Minutes is not watched by 22-year-olds nor do we sell it that way.”

Moonves has compared newsmagazines to Westerns, a popular television genre that is now extinct. He has said, according to multiple former executives, that newsmagazines are “dead.” Moonves denies this. “I may have said the proliferation of newsmagazines is dead,” he claims.

Moonves is right: Newsmagazines are no longer proliferating. But 60 Minutes, he adds, is not like other newsmagazines.“It's the gold standard. 60 Minutes will be on the air Sunday nights on CBS, probably until the end of broadcasting,” he says. “And by the way, I believe that. I really do.”

 

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