By Donna Smith ~
The tick-tick-ticking of an iconic American news program, 60 Minutes, catches listeners’ ears, and its screen-filling stopwatch reminds viewers that the show is about to begin.
On Sunday, September 24, 2018, the most watched, most successful, and most honored television broadcast in American history will begin its fiftieth season on CBS at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Its popularity across generations is a prime-time feat envied by all other news programs. The fifty-year-old show has won every major honor, including 20 Peabody Awards, 12 duPont Awards, and a record 138 Emmys.
Despite the efforts of competing networks, 60 Minutes has maintained audience interest and regular viewership, winning Nielson’s Number One Program crown five times in three different decades, with no other single program ever being a top ten hit for as many seasons as 60 Minutes. What has made this unique television show so consistently successful?
The show’s basic format has remained consistent. Producers have recognized the addage that “success breeds success,” presenting quality stories to its audience from a relatively objective point of view. 60 Minutes has steadily adhered to the principles of storytelling with factual data and human interest.
The show’s current executive producer, Jeff Fager, has written a book, 50 Years of 60 Minutes, which will go on sale October 24. An excerpt published in Vanity Fair reports on the rise of the CBS flagship newsmagazine and the role producer Don Hewitt played in making America’s must-watch TV news program a dynasty. According to Fager, if Hewitt had not been fired from his radio network job with CBS in 1965, 60 Minutes might never have emerged on television screens. It seems that Edward R. Murrow, the “paragon of journalistic integrity,” dismissed Hewitt, who moved to television, a broadcast venue Murrow considered an inconsequential invention.
Prior to 60 Minutes, Hewitt pioneered television news, directing the first televised presidential debate in 1960, which was between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Hewitt realized the power of TV to shape public opinion, and in 1968 he created a television magazine with a mix of serious and light stories presented in a compact manner to keep viewers’ attention.
Originally shifted across eight different time slots, 60 Minutes eventually secured its place on Sunday evenings where it has remained. We have welcomed paragons of the journalism industry into our homes: Harry Reasoner, Mike Wallace, and Morley Safer were soon joined by the likes of Dan Rather, Andy Rooney, Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer, Steve Kroft, Anderson Cooper, and Lesley Stahl.
How have such diverse professionals maintained the program’s integrity for fifty years? The key to that mystery lies in its original producer’s mantra. Don Hewitt insisted on no meetings, no memos: “Just bring us good stories.” A story’s quality and the storyteller’s skill have kept 60 Minutes alive. Segments are lively, direct, and uncompromising, and the reporters consistently deliver journalism that is scholarly, focused, straight-talking, sometimes whimsical, at times compassionate, and universally independent.
60 Minutes’ longevity surprised its original producer when he reflected on the program’s first twenty-five years, admitting he never expected it to last twenty-five weeks. Although Hewitt died in 2012 at the age of ninety-three, the program has continued without skipping a beat. Viewers across the years may recall their favorite “pages” from the televised news-magazine, but none can deny the personalized variety in each piece. When cameras continually bring us face-to-face with someone being interviewed, that person enters our home and the story touches our heart, our mind, and, occasionally, our sense of humor.
The wide-ranging subjects covered on 60 Minutes share a common theme: a story worth telling, a story worth telling completely, thoroughly, and well, every Sunday night for fifty years.
About the author: Donna Smith is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes and a frequent contributor to Living @ SCCL magazine where this article was originally published. Thank you, Donna, for sharing this article with our readers.