Tuesday, October 7, 2008

60 Minutes at 40!

60 MINUTES officially celebrated its 40th birthday last night at the Central Park Boat House. Jeff Fager, who is its current "brilliant" executive producer, hosted more than two hundred present and past staff members and friends.

Most striking was the presence of the creator and founding executive producer, the brilliant Don Hewitt, who recently underwent heart surgery. He was physically weak, ashen faced and crooked over at the hip. His usual energetic and booming voice was weak and strained. This is a man who once walked with great swagger, confidence and gravitas. This is the man who directed the 1960 presidential debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, and SEE IT NOW with Edward R. Murrow.

Hewitt had to be helped to the podium and he had difficulty reading the three pages of remarks he had prepared. With humor and great pride he spoke of his team of correspondents beginning with his co-conspirator, Mike Wallace. There probably would have been no 60 MINUTES had Mike Wallace not been involved.

In the mid-sixties, Don Hewitt served as executive producer of the CBS EVENING NEWS with Walter Cronkite. Hewitt had expanded the program from fifteen minutes to a half hour. But Cronkite did not like Hewitt because he did not think of him as a serious journalist. He called him a "showman," which was the worst denunciation for a serious journalist. Cronkite wanted Hewitt removed, and in time he got his wish.

One day, Hewitt was summoned to the front office. He was informed he was getting a "promotion" and would take over CBS News specials and development. He was told this was a newly created position. When Hewitt enthusiastically informed his wife of his "promotion" she said, without hesitation, "Don, you just got fired." At that point, Hewitt realized that Cronkite had pushed him off the evening news.

Hewitt cannot sit still, ever. In his new position he produced a couple news specials and came up with a new idea for a program. He thought to himself if there can be a Life magazine on the newsstands, why can't there be a news magazine on television. He came up with a concept, three long form pieces in a one-hour format. The anchors would be the reporters. And he talked Mike Wallace into helping him do a pilot along with the late Harry Reasoner.

Upon completion of the pilot, he had difficulty getting an audience with executives. Stories have it that when executives would see Hewitt coming down the hall carrying a big blue videotape container, they would duck into the bathroom. But finally he wore executives down and they decided, beginning September 24, 1968, to give 60 Minutes a Tuesday nighttime slot, biweekly, competing against the number one show in television. It was a rocky start.

There were only three powerful commercial television networks back then and the FCC was concerned about how the networks served the community. The "Vast Wasteland" were words that echoed through the American consciousness throughout the sixties; the 1961 words of then FCC chairman Newton Minow. In 1971, the Prime Time Access Rules were enacted, and in January 1972 60 MINUTES would occupy the Sunday "family viewing hour" set aside for informative programming. Within a couple years, fueled by oustanding coverage of the Viet Nam War and Watergate, correspondents Mike Wallace and Morley Safer helped lead 60 MINUTES into the top ten of all television programs. Since its launch 60 MINUTES has finished the television season as the top ranked program in household ratings a half-dozen times.

I was the CBS News executive in charge of 60 MINUTES from 1988 to 1995. The job consisted of screening their pieces for final approval before airing, and serving as marriage counselor for all of the powerful, competitive and talented correspondents and producers who worked on the broadcast. Correspondents such as, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Harry Reasoner, Diane Sawyer, Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, Meredith Vieira, Lesley Stahl, Bob Simon, Scott Pelley, Andy Rooney and later Christiane Amanpour, Lara Logan, Katie Couric, Charlie Rose and Anderson Cooper.

As Don Hewitt wrapped up his remarks last night to warm applause, Morley Safer stepped to the microphone and acknowledged Ed Bradley and Harry Reasoner, who even in death were still a powerful presence in the room. I looked carefully at Safer. I then looked over at Mike Wallace, seated at a table in front. Despite being ninety years old and weak, he had only recently retired. I then looked at Andy Rooney, seated nearby, and realized he is still working full time even though he will be ninety next January. These people have been my heroes, my icons for my entire adult life. And they created and served on the longest running television program in history, and the best television news program ever. Thankfully, because a great tradition of story telling has been preserved and re-energized by Jeff Fager, 60 MINUTES will provide outstanding content for at least another generation.

I am truly proud and grateful to have had a small role in the meaningful and important life of 60 MINUTES.

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