'60 Minutes' producer to leave next year

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

NEW YORK -- Legendary producer Don Hewitt, who created the first television newsmagazine, "60 Minutes," and has run it since the stopwatch began ticking in 1968, announced Monday he will give up the reins next year.

Hewitt, 80, nonetheless signed a new 10-year deal with CBS to continue as an adviser and to create new projects.

Jeff Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes II" and a Hewitt protege, will replace Hewitt at the conclusion of the next television season in June 2004.

"60 Minutes," a Sunday night fixture on CBS, is the longest-running, continuous prime-time show ever and still the most popular newsmagazine. With a stable of correspondents led by Mike Wallace and humorist Andy Rooney, Hewitt decides each week what goes on the air.

"He really has a unique role in the history of our craft," said CBS News President Andrew Heyward. "It's as if you were working in the airline industry and you came to the factory and the Wright Brothers were on the assembly line."

Still, his future represented a sticky problem for CBS. Given Hewitt's age, they wanted to set a succession plan without insulting a key figure in the network's history; Hewitt, meanwhile, has said, "I want to die at my desk."

Hewitt said he wasn't sure, until being offered the long-term deal, what CBS wanted from him. "I think it suddenly dawned on them that I had a lot more to offer them," he said.

Hewitt said he's "happy as hell" with Monday's deal. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Aggressive investigation

"60 Minutes" has maintained a style of aggressive investigation and worldly topics, particularly as rivals concentrated more on pop culture or true crime tales. It still makes news; last month Al Gore chose to announce on "60 Minutes" that he wasn't running for president in 2004.

"Don Hewitt's contribution to serious and engaging television cannot be overstated," said Alex Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner and host of PBS' "Media Matters." "He has proven that it is possible to have television that is both important and interesting."

A rival, NBC News President and former "Dateline NBC" chief executive Neal Shapiro, said that "anybody who has ever worked in newsmagazines owes Don Hewitt a big debt."

Hewitt -- the winner of eight Emmy and two Peabody awards -- was the subject of an unflattering portrait, however, in the 1999 movie, "The Insider," which depicted him caving to pressure from CBS lawyers and not airing a whistleblowing report from an ex-tobacco executive. The full report eventually aired.

Top 10 show

The newsmagazine was among Nielsen Media Research's top 10 shows for 22 seasons in a row starting in 1978 and was top-ranked five times, the last in 1993-94.

This season, "60 Minutes" is in a three-way tie for 17th in the ratings, averaging 13.9 million viewers. That's down from 23.3 million viewers in 1994-95, according to Nielsen. It also has among the oldest audiences in television, always a concern in the youth-driven TV business, although CBS maintains there's a solid business selling "60 Minutes" demographics to advertisers.

While a new producer will offer a different perspective, CBS doesn't see anything in the show that requires change, Heyward said.

"CBS is going to have to have a true superstar to step into his shoes," Jones said. "I don't think anyone is irreplaceable, but I think Don Hewitt has set the standard for television journalism for a long time."

Fager, 48, has long been considered the heir apparent. He worked as a producer at "60 Minutes" under Hewitt from 1989 to 1994 and was executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" after that. Despite some initial opposition from the "60 Minutes" old guard, he started a spinoff that's considered a journalistic and ratings success.

He has Hewitt's blessing.

"They say you shouldn't follow a legend, that you should follow the guy who followed the legend," Fager said. "I don't believe that."

He said that he's "not going in to change '60 Minutes.' It's a place that has great storytelling week in and week out."

Hewitt began working at CBS News in 1948 and was credited with a range of innovations aside from "60 Minutes." In the early '50s, he worked with Edward R. Murrow on "See It Now" and coined the term "anchor" to describe Walter Cronkite's role at the 1956 political conventions. He also directed CBS' convention coverage for many years and produced the first televised presidential debate in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

He was head of the CBS News documentary unit when he developed the idea for "60 Minutes." The first episode aired Sept. 24, 1968.

"Hopefully, I can come up with something (more) that was as good or as copied as this one was," Hewitt said.

When he steps down from "60 Minutes," Hewitt will become executive producer of CBS News, responsible for developing new projects.

"He's got more ideas than the rest of us put together," Heyward said, "and some of them actually work."

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