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Hewitt Blazed the Trail

Sep 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will pay tribute to “35 Years of `60 Minutes”’ at a symposium and lunch Wednesday, and with a Lifetime Achievement Award to be added to the vast collection of awards won by creator and executive producer Don Hewitt, executive editor Philip Scheffler and past and present “60 Minutes” correspondents at that evening’s News and Documentary Emmy Awards ceremony.
A recent interview by TelevisionWeek’s Michele Greppi produced these pithy comments by Mr. Hewitt:
What the network’s early mandate for the show was: The marching orders we got from [then-CBS News President] Bill Leonard were: `Make us proud.’ Nobody said: `Make us money.’ Because they said, `Make us proud,’ we made them $2 billion. If they’d said, `Make us money,’ I don’t think we would have known how to do it. And I don’t think anybody in television has said to anybody else in television, since that day, `Make us proud.’
What life is like for journalism’s equivalent of a rock star: When you are in the Top 10 for a record-never-to-be-broken 22 years and you have practically single-handedly supported the company during some very dark days for the company … you have a tendency to get spoiled. Of course, it spoils you. I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t.
What `60 Minutes’ does for CBS: What it does for CBS is allow them to do some of the things they do. Because they’re not going to dumb down `60 Minutes,’ and therefore you can dumb down anything else, as long as you can point to `60 Minutes’ with pride. And they do point to us with pride.
How it feels when network executives try to fix what ain’t broke. They’re smart enough not to make a frontal attack. So it’s usually very subtle, like, `Couldn’t you maybe dah dah, dah dah, dah dah?’ And again I say, `We’re doing the right stories for the broadcast you commissioned us to do.’
Today the emphasis seems to be all on demographics. I think `60 Minutes II’ does an excellent job. I think Jeff Fager is a top-notch producer, as is Josh Howard, who works for me. But I have to think that Time magazine was smarter than CBS. [The Time magazine family] didn’t clone Time magazine. They started People. Instead of having two Time magazines, they had one Time magazine and one People. People makes them a fortune.
Now, when they say to me … they want people like Eminem and Britney Spears, I say, `That’s what you could do if you had a People magazine.’ What I would like to do right now is resurrect, now that I’m sort of ending my days at `60 Minutes,’ is to resurrect a show I did year’s ago called `Who’s Who.’ If you do `Who’s Who,’ which is a television version of People magazine, you can do Eminem, you can do Britney Spears, along with the pope and Tommy Franks [who retired after commanding the allied forces in the war on Iraq] and top-notch baseball players.
The fear in news divisions that reality programming is a threat partly because it is cheaper to make than a newsmagazine and is easily promotable: Now find something [positive to say] after `cheaper and easier to promote.’ Better? Better television? Uh, television you can be proud of? A worthy successor to a `Studio One’ or a `Philco Playhouse’? No. But cheaper and easier to promote? Of course. Nobody ever denied that.
And you always come back to the fact that you’re in a profit-making business. Commercial broadcasting is commercial broadcasting. It’s like a billboard. You put a billboard up on a busy street, where people will pass by and see it. You put a commercial on a busy street where people will pass by and see it.
I’ve always thought they could get more money for `60 Minutes’ commercials than they get. It gets a specific audience. I don’t think they’re marketing that as well as they could be.