Given the unprecedented success and startling Nielsen track record of 60 Minutes, it's easy to forget that the show—now celebrating its 40th anniversary as a television institution—has always been something of an anomaly.
It was Don Hewitt—the newsmagazine's executive producer from its 1968 premiere until he retired at 81 in 2004—who had the brilliant idea to mix up the reports, give something for everyone each Sunday night and never suffer fools. The formula caught on big-time, became part of the TV fabric, inspired imitators and pretenders, and reshaped a genre.
But while most anomalies get only their 15 minutes, 60 thrives, even as viewing attention is further furcated by a multi-platform world. It has always succeeded because, as Jeff Fager, executive producer of the show since Hewitt's departure, puts it, 60 Minutes has stayed true to its “brand.” The word may be vastly overused this election season, but the show is among the only true mavericks you'll see on television every week.
“It's the quality of the storytelling,” Fager says. “That's the mothership.”
That ship has carried viewers on some of the most insightful, provocative and extraordinary journeys in the history of the medium. And that may best explain why 60 Minutes is the longest-running primetime show on television (only NBC's Meet the Press has been on longer). The series has topped the Nielsen ratings a record five times, and shattered the record for consecutive seasons finishing in the top 10.
And, reminds Hewitt, “The storytellers were always as important as the stories.”
Those storytellers produced incredible TV news theater. The stellar reports veer from tragic to comic, from friendly to mesmerizing, and from cooperative to confrontational. There is Mike Wallace going face-to-face with the Ayatollah Khomeini while American hostages continued to be held in Iran. Dan Rather on the front lines, reporting on Afghan rebels fighting Soviet forces. Morley Safer disarming Jackie Gleason by questioning The Great One where he felt most comfortable: at the pool table. Steve Kroft's 1992 interview with then-addled candidate Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary. Ed Bradley's powerful reports on the Duke rape case—his last story. And Wallace's report on Dr. Jack Kevorkian that showed—literally—the power and controversy surrounding the act of mercy killing.
“Broadcasters are what make a broadcast,” Hewitt says. “And I decided I was going to have a star-studded cast.”
That cast now includes seasoned stars such as Kroft, Scott Pelley, Lara Logan, Anderson Cooper and CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric…and, as always, Andy Rooney.
The pieces are now somewhat shorter than they used to be, but the show's classic model does not jibe with today's media environment, where sound bites have trumped reasoned reporting. That model continues to work at 60 Minutes, which remains true to its vision. And this past March, the show did clock 17 million streams on Yahoo through a deal with the portal that is now being renewed.
“I like to think we're as current as we can possibly be,” Fager says. “We're on our toes; we're ready to jump on stories that are part of this week's world.”
It continues to be a series of its time by staying with the times. Yet it has succeeded by being one thing few shows ever truly manage to be: timeless.—Robert Edelstein