60 minutes ticks on

Feb 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Even for “60 Minutes,” the most successful and longest-running news program ever, these are challenging times.
After more than 20 years on Nielsen’s Top 10 list, its audience is getting smaller (14 million viewers on the average week this season, down about 1 million from a year ago, to rank 17th) and grayer (with a median age of 60) in the face of increased competition.
“There’s no magic bullet or secret Coca-Cola recipe here,” said CBS News President Andrew Heyward. But there is Jeff Fager, to whom “60 Minutes” founder Don Hewitt, the only executive producer the show has ever had, will pass the torch in June 2004.
As the well-regarded executive producer of “60 Minutes II” and alumnus of “60 Minutes,” “CBS Evening News” and “48 Hours,” Mr. Fager, 48, is no secret weapon. He says he is more than ready to take on the challenge of keeping “60 Minutes” ticking with the times.
He says flatly “no way” when asked whether “60 Minutes”-which Mr. Hewitt has said has made a billion dollars for CBS-must make a zen-like accommodation with erosion and aging.
“I can’t make that kind of peace,” Mr. Fager said.
However, Mr. Fager knows that television is a cyclical business, now on a cheap-escapist-programming binge just as it was once hungry for newsmagazines. “I’d like to think that can happen again,” he said.
“The [reality] explosion carries within it the seeds for its own defeat,” Mr. Heyward said.
Despite seeing “60 Minutes II” lose ground (overall viewership and the 25-54 demo are down 8 percent year to year) against ABC’s “The Bachelorette,” Fox’s “American Idol,” and NBC’s “The West Wing,” Mr. Fager has not deviated from the Hewitt-honed formula for which “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II” are known: a variety of stories well-told.
“Jeff comes out of the culture of this place,” said Morley Safer. He and Steve Kroft were the two correspondents with whom Mr. Fager worked most closely from 1989 to 1994, when he was a producer on “60 Minutes.” Mr. Fager recalls it as a time when he was happy to be “treated as an adult” and thrilled to be told by Mr. Hewitt that “We don’t have any g**damn meetings and memos.”
‘Perfect fit’
“It’s a perfect fit,” said Mr. Safer, who knows Mr. Fager as a tough editor and “great manager” who earned confidence, respect and devotion-yes, those are the words Mr. Safer used-in some very tough rooms, among them the offices and screening rooms of “60 Minutes,” where the legendary give-and-take of the editing process often would strike an outsider as a verbal brawl.
“Where would you like it?” Mr. Hewitt might say. “Right between the eyes?”
Sometimes the interaction gets a little more than verbal. Once, when Mr. Fager “was standing in the door making some smart-ass remarks,” Mr. Safer was moved to hurl a cup full of coffee, which missed Mr. Fager and instead left its mark on Mr. Safer’s office curtains.
The result-a rectangle of loosely woven and banally stained material titled “weak coffee on cheap curtain” and signed “Safer/Fager/92”-is among the framed mementos, awards and photos areound Mr. Fager’s office that document his career, which is rooted in his love of writing and adventure.
As a young man, he thought about joining the merchant marine. Instead, he graduated from Colgate University in 1977 and signed on as a production assistant at WBZ-TV, the Boston station now owned by CBS. A few moves later, in 1982, he joined CBS News as a weekend and overnight producer who “wanted to cover wars. I wanted to cover summits.”
And so he did, as a producer in New York and later London, for “Evening News,” where he would be executive producer from 1996 to 1998.
Mr. Fager also helped Mr. Heyward freshen the newsmagazine concept with the launch of “48 Hours” in 1988.
Clearly, he has ambition, though he professes not to think much past “next week’s broadcast.” He also has a life that revolves around the New Canaan, Conn., home shared with wife Melinda and three children. And the energizing daily 3-mile run that starts at 7 a.m.
“He has a real life and a family and stuff that he does-unlike a lot of people in this world for whom this [job] is their life,” Mr. Safer said. “He’s able to achieve both with great aplomb.”
Skeptics in the ranks
When he was charged with spinning off “60 Minutes II” in 1999, it was in the face of publicly expressed skepticism by Mr. Hewitt, 80, among other “60 Minutes” stalwarts.
Also on the wall of Mr. Fager’s office is a photo labeled “The Punishment of St. Jeff” in which Mr. Safer is balancing Mr. Fager’s head on a platter. It was Mr. Safer’s reaction to a 2000 TV Guide article in which Mr. Fager seemed to be casting himself as the martyred St. John to Mr. Hewitt’s more exalted persona.
“This is how we regard executive producers around here,” Mr. Safer said, suggesting a caption as he handed over a copy of the photo.
But Mr. Fager succeeded in producing a “60 Minutes II” even his ninth-floor father figure Mr. Hewitt-“They don’t come that big anymore”-could love.
“He called me that first night and said, ‘You made us proud,'”Mr. Fager recalled.
Now comes a year of transitional collaboration before Mr. Hewitt relinquishes “60 Minutes” and becomes the roving executive producer whose job description calls for him to develop what he wants and to tweak anything anybody does at CBS News through the year 2010.
“He is filled with ideas,” said Mr. Fager, whose eyes twinkle ever so slightly when he thinks of all the doors Mr. Hewitt will be standing in as the pre-eminent gray eminence at CBS News.
There was a group sigh when Mr. Heyward finally convinced Mr. Hewitt, who had vowed on “Larry King Live” in December that he wanted to die at his desk and would switch networks if that’s what it took, that no one wanted him to leave.
But Mr. Fager was particularly grateful that anything resembling a “train wreck” had been avoided.
Mr. Safer, 70, said he will be cutting back in 2004 (see sidebar). Founding co-editor Mike Wallace, 84, has vowed to cut his prodigious output of 20 or more pieces a season to half that for “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II” and now says he might retire at the end of his contract next year. No changes in status or output are pending for Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl or Bob Simon, each 61, nor for Mr. Kroft, 57, or commentator Andy Rooney, 84.
Thus Mr. Fager can look forward to inheriting a legendary franchise that he says “is not broken,” and to patching and blending as new correspondents are added to the mix.
“He’s a great enthusiast and it’s infectious,” Mr. Safer said. “That kind of enthusiasm is rare these days.”#