American television news magazine, which has run on CBS since 1968.
1968 - present
“Good evening, this is ‘60 Minutes.’ It's a kind of a magazine for television, which means it has the flexibility and diversity of a magazine, adapted to broadcast journalism.”–Co-host Harry Reasoner, introducing the very first episode, September 24th, 1968.
No one thought a news program could actually compete successfully with entertainment programs in US prime time. But “60 Minutes” did–and in the process won numerous awards, while making (as of this writing) more than a billion dollars in profits for CBS. Not that “60 Minutes” is perfect; it has made its share of mistakes and missteps. Still, the show has refused to sink to the “Entertainment Tonight”/tabloid murder level of many of its competitors, and has generally maintained a high tone in its nearly 40-year history.
There had been multi-topic news programs before “60 Minutes” that mixed hard stories, celebrity interviews and segments on various topics. Probably the best-known was a Canadian show called “This Hour Has Seven Days.” The CBC program (which ran from 1964 until 1966) mixed “ambush” interviews with documentaries and other features, including a “This Was The Week That Was” segment of songs centering on current events. But its take-no-prisoners style and controversial stories led to “This Week’s” cancellation in 1966, amid outcries from viewers.
“60 Minutes” was the brainchild of Don Hewitt, a former producer of “The CBS Evening News,” who found himself demoted to in the documentary unit. He realized the traditional hour-long documentary had major flaws that kept viewers away. Hewitt believed some subjects could be better told in a shorter format, with two or three different stories filling an hour. But no one took his idea seriously until Richard Salant became CBS News president in 1966. He and Hewitt’s immediate boss, Bill Leonard, felt Hewitt’s concept might revitalize the long form news format. Both felt the ideal host for the new show would be weekend anchor and reporter Harry Reasoner, who had a talent for both hard news and a knack for writing soft, thoughtful pieces–skills needed for a show that would combine various topics.
But Salant and Leonard also urged Hewitt to add some contrast by hiring CBS’ hard-hitting reporter/interviewer Mike Wallace as co-anchor. It almost never happened; Wallace was covering Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign for CBS, and had agreed to do Hewitt’s new show before he was offered the job of Nixon’s press secretary. Wallace turned down Nixon’s offer–a decision that later proved to be a wise one, as the Watergate scandal would bear out.
The newly-named “60 Minutes” made its debut on a Tuesday night with no fanfare or majestic musical theme–just a shot of a ticking stopwatch at the open and close of each installment, and between each commercial break. Its competition was a short-lived variety sketch show on ABC called “That’s Life” and the second hour of NBC’s Tuesday movie lineup. (“60 Minutes” itself alternated every other week with the traditional documentary series “CBS Reports,” as part of what was billed as the “CBS News Hour.”) Not surprisingly, ratings were low. Critics found the initial episodes muddled; Hewitt had packed too many features into the first several programs. But as the season went on, there were more solid news and feature pieces, made stronger as both Wallace and Reasoner found their respective voices and rhythms. By its second season, “60 Minutes” was hailed as one of the best news shows ever. But its ratings were lower than ever, in part because ABC had slotted the top-rated medical drama “Marcus Welby, MD” against it.
In 1970, Reasoner left CBS to become anchor of ABC’s evening news; he was replaced on “60 Minutes” with former Vietnam correspondent Morley Safer. Like Reasoner, Safer easily tackled hard news but also had talent to turn out softer, celebrity-oriented and feature pieces. 1970 also saw the launch of a debate segment called “Point/Counterpoint,” featuring notable liberals and conservatives going against each other on major topics of the day. The best-known duo pit left-winger Shana Alexander against right-leaning James Kilpatrick; it became so popular that it was parodied on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” with Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd as the Alexander/Kilpatrick duo. (Aykroyd’s tagline–“Jane, you ignorant slut!”--became a national catchphrase in the late 1970's.)
When Alexander and Kilpatrick left “60 Minutes,” the “Point/Counterpoint” segment was replaced by “A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney,” where the longtime CBS News writer Andy Rooney would rail against the powerful and the trivial; that segment continues to this day. In March 2003, Hewitt revived the “Point/Counterpoint” segment, this time with former Republican Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole debating former President Bill Clinton. But the “Clinton/Dole” segments were too mannered at a time when more aggressive cable news debate programs such as “Crossfire” and “The O’Reilly Factor” were in vogue; the experiment ended after ten segments.
After three years of critical praise and low ratings, CBS executives moved “60 Minutes” to an early afternoon timeslot, where such news programs as “The Twentieth Century” once thrived. “60 Minutes” also found itself occasionally pre-empted during the network’s coverage of professional football. But in its new timeslot, the team continued to put out strong stories that got noticed; a growing number of viewers found “60 Minutes” a fine afternoon diversion.
In the fall of 1975, the Federal Communications Commission gave back an hour of prime time to the networks on Sunday nights from 7:00 to 8:00. But that hour had to be filled with “family friendly” programing or news and public affairs. NBC had a head start with its long-running Disney anthology, which covered the FCC’s family mandate. CBS’ initial attempt to fill the slot struck out with the quick failure of the father-son drama “Three For The Road.” With no replacement on the shelves, network executives decided to give “60 Minutes” a chance against Disney and moved the show to 7:00 p.m. About the same time, veteran White House correspondent Dan Rather (who was anchoring the traditional “CBS Reports” documentary series) was approached to join Wallace and Safer as the newest “60 Minutes” correspondent. He jumped in with hard-hitting consumer pieces (ripoffs in used car sales and gas stations) and a mixture of hard news and interviews.
Adults looking for an alternative to “Disney” soon tuned in. Within months, “60 Minutes” became a top 30 hit; by 1978, it was among the top ten shows on American television. A year later, “60 Minutes” became the most-watched program of any type in prime time. No other regularly-scheduled news show has ever achieved that feat. What’s more, the hour-long series cost less to produce than a 30 minute sitcom, and CBS didn’t have to share the enormous profits with a studio. The economics of “60 Minutes” led the other networks to launch their own news magazines. ABC’s “20/20" was the most successful copy of “60 Minutes;” launched in 1978, it leaned toward softer features and more celebrity interviews. NBC launched no less than 17 news magazine programs between 1969 and 1992 before “Dateline” finally broke the network’s jinx.
(“60 Minutes” has set several ratings records. Between 1977 and 2000, it landed among the top ten shows every season and was the most watched program in prime time for five non-consecutive years, matching “All In The Family” and “The Cosby Show”.)
As the years went on, viewers couldn’t help but see changes to the “60 Minutes” team. Original co-host Harry Reasoner left ABC and returned to the show in 1978. When Dan Rather was tapped to anchor the “CBS Evening News” in 1981, he was replaced with Ed Bradley, the first African-American correspondent on the show. In 1984, Diane Sawyer became the first woman to join the “60 Minutes” on-air team; she left for ABC five years later. Meredith Viera joined the group for a two year stretch in 1989; she left because of friction with Hewitt and other executives over her decision to put her family first and cut back on working hours. (Viera later became a regular on the ABC daytime female talk show “The View” and will co-host NBC’s “Today” in the fall of 2006.) CBS reporter Steve Kroft joined “60 Minutes” in 1989; longtime correspondent Leslie Stahl became a regular two years later.
1991 was also the last year for the increasingly ill Harry Reasoner; he died three months after his last appearance on “60 Minutes.” But Mike Wallace–the longest-serving correspondent–stayed at “60 Minutes” until his retirement as a regular contributor in May 2006, at the ripe old age of 86. (As of this writing, former anchor Dan Rather is doing occasional “60 Minutes” pieces; ex-“Today” co-host Katie Couric will do the same when she becomes the new “CBS Evening News” anchor in the fall of 2006.)
Changes came behind the scenes as well. Don Hewitt, who created the show and served as its executive producer, kept a steady hand on the tiller. But in the late 1990's, critics had accused “60 Minutes” of being too predictable and playing it safe. It was still among the top 20 shows on television, but it was a far cry from the days when the news magazine was among the top ten week after week. Hewitt began shaking up “60 Minutes” with more timely interviews and investigative pieces, especially after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. But Hewitt (and his CBS bosses) had never discussed a line of succession. That soon changed.
Using a clause in Hewitt’s contract, the network began to phase him off the show by removing his top lieutenant and hiring Jeff Fager as the show’s new executive producer. By 2004, Hewitt was no longer an active “60 Minutes” producer but still had a job to create new programs for the news division. One CBS News show Hewitt did not have a say in was a spin-off of his creation.
After years of debate, CBS–despite Hewitt’s opposition--launched a second weekly version (“60 Minutes II”) in 1999, with a different producer and team of correspondents. The show was later called “60 Minutes Wednesday,” but never became as popular as its parent. It was cancelled in September 2005 after Dan Rather did a piece on the show about documents critical of President George W. Bush’s service in the U.S. National Guard. The documents allegedly criticized Bush’s performance in the Guard. But it turned out CBS News producers did not examine the documents closely; both Bush supporters and independent reporters discovered the documents may not have been authentic; CBS News officials continued to defend the story despite growing questions about their authencitiy. Following an internal investigation, CBS News conceded that it could not prove the Bush documents were authentic. The controversy led to an on-air apology; the firing of segment producer Mary Napes and several other employees; and the decision by Dan Rather to retire as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” in March 2005. (He later became an occasional correspondent for “60 Minutes.”)
Probably the most-publicized “60 Minutes” controversy came in 1995, when segment producer Lowell Bergman received information from a Brown & Williamson Tobacco executive named Jeffrey Wigand, who claimed B&W had hidden the health risks of their cigarettes and added such ingredients as ammonia and fiberglass to the smokes, in order to enhance the addictive qualities of nicotine. When Bergman began producing a segment on the controversy (with Mike Wallace as its correspondent), it ran into opposition from CBS executives. At issue was a possible lawsuit over the article since Wigand had a confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson. Critics also pointed out that at the time, CBS was about to be purchased by Westinghouse, and the one thing the network did not need was a legal controversy that could derail the deal.) CBS and Don Hewitt ordered Bergman not to air the piece, leading to a serious falling out between Wallace and Hewitt. Wallace later wrote of Hewitt’s role in spiking the Wigand story: “I could no longer view him with the respect, much less the affection, that I once had felt so profoundly,”
When “The Wall Street Journal” published the story, identifying Wigand as the tobacco executive, CBS soon after aired the Bergman piece, complete with a Wigand interview. The “60 Minutes”/Wigand saga later became a movie called “The Insider,” with Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman and Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand. (Christopher Plummer portrayed Mike Wallace in the film; Phillip Baker Hall played Don Hewitt.)
Ironically, the success of “60 Minutes” has forced American television news programs to play by the same ratings rules as entertainment programs: Get decent ratings or go off the air. The “60 Minutes” model also meant that news programs were under pressure to start generating profits. In that sense, “60 Minutes” became a template for news executives; by the 1990's, there were at least six hours of news magazines on the air from the major networks every week–not to mention similar programs from cable news outlets CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC.
Don Hewitt has long said “60 Minutes” became a success because it applied entertainment values to news. In other words, it had conflict, identifiable good guys and bad guys, and told a succinct story that kept viewers watching for more than a quarter century. It’s not hard to argue with the many awards and honors the show has picked up over the years, or its continued popularity (“60 Minutes” remains in television’s top 20 week after week). Not unlike going to church or family suppers, “60 Minutes” has become a Sunday institution. At a time when its rivals follow celebrity and pop culture trends, with little investigative reporting in the mix, “60 Minutes” has stayed true to its original mission of journalism with a difference. That’s good news for television in general, and the public in particular.
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