Another news great left us today, with the passing of Don Hewitt, legendary CBS News producer and the creator of 60 Minutes. Hewitt, 86, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March. His death comes on the heels of another broadcast news legend, Walter Cronkite, whom Hewitt directed and produced for years.
Hewitt was on the scene for many of TV news’ biggest moments.
According to CBSNews.com, Hewitt “directed the first network television newscast, featuring Douglas Edwards, on May 3, 1948. He was the executive producer of the first half-hour network newscast when the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite became the first to go to a 30-minute format on Sept. 2, 1963. Among Hewitt’s TV news innovations was the use of cue cards for newsreaders, the electronic version of which, the TelePrompTer, is still used today. He was the first to use ‘supers’ - putting type in the lower third of the television screen. Another invention of Hewitt’s was the film ‘double’ - cutting back and forth between two projectors - an editing breakthrough that re-shaped television news. Hewitt also helped develop the positioning of cameras and reporters still used to cover news events, especially political conventions.”
Hewitt also produced the famous debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, frequently reminding interviewers that he offered both men make-up and that both refused. The younger, tanner, less sweaty Kennedy emerged looking cool and calm, contributing to Nixon’s loss of both the debate and the election.
On Sept. 24, 1968, Hewitt launched 60 Minutes, the mother — and still the best — of the now-common news magazine format. Hewitt put Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner behind the anchor desk – as so-called bad cop and good cop – and let them go deep on all sorts of subjects. 60 Minutes really took off when CBS placed it on Sunday nights after football, a time slot it still occupies 41 years later. The show started off as a top-20 program and slowly climbed its way to the top, eventually hitting the number-one mark five times, a feat only equaled by two other iconic TV shows: The Cosby Show and All in the Family.
60 Minutes aired many ground-breaking interviews and broke many big stories during its run, including Bill and Hillary Clinton’s post-Super Bowl interview in 1992 and Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s argument for euthanasia in 1998. One of Hewitt’s and 60 Minutes’ few missteps, according to Hewitt, was the agreement to withhold a story with tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in order to avoid a $10 billion lawsuit against CBS.
Although Hewitt was the originator of the evening newscast, he understood in his later years that TV news was drastically changing. He believed that opinion-leaders garnered ratings and sold newspapers and knew that news programs needed to stay ahead of the Internet. “The stories have been told before [the audience] gets to them. You can’t tell them much at 7PM that they don’t already know.”
Hewitt’s last days as executive producer of the show he created came in July 2003. He remained at CBS as an executive producer and consultant, signing a 10-year contract with the network when he was 80, according to an interview Hewitt did with NPR in July 2003.
“I want to die at my desk,” Hewitt told NPR’s Alex Chadwick. “I don’t want to die on a golf course or in a rowboat. I always say I haven’t been to work in half a century. My work is so enjoyable. Fifty years ago, I was at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. You can’t call that work. I was at Grace Kelly’s wedding. I can’t call that work. It’s been such a pleasure, a sleigh ride – I don’t think anyone’s ever been happier than I was while I was working at CBS.”