About This Show
from the Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television
U.S. News Magazine
In 1967 Don Hewitt conceived of his new program, 60 Minutes, as a strategy for addressing issues given insufficient time for analysis in two minutes of the Evening News but not deemed significant enough to justify an hour-long documentary. 60 Minutes was born, then, in an environment of management tension and initial ambiguity regarding its form. Bill Leonard, CBS vice president for News Programming, supported the new concept, but Richard Salant, president of the News Division, argued it countered that unit's commitment to the longer form and risked taking the hard edge off television journalism. In the end Salant acquiesced.
Hewitt's direction remained flexible and uncertain, with design for the program possibly including any number of "pages" and "chapters" lasting one to twenty minutes, and spanning breaking news, commentary, satire, interviews with politicians and celebrities, feature stories, and letters to the editor. CBS proclaimed the ground-breaking potential of this magazine form, announcing that no existing phrase could describe the series' configuration, and that any attempt to gauge (or predict) demographic appeal based on comparisons with traditional public affairs programming was a limited prospect. Yet, by the Spring of 1993 the series success was so established within the history of network programming that CBS and 60 Minutes had competition from six other prime-time magazine programs.
From September 1966 through December 1975, network management shifted the scheduling position of 60 Minutes seven times. Its ratings were very low according to industry standards, although slightly higher than those of CBS Reports when aired in the same time slot, but critical response remained positive. In today's competitive environment, where "unsuccessful" programs are quickly removed from the schedule, the series would not remain on the air. But in the early 1970s the CBS News Division sought a more engaging weekly documentary form.
Almost three decades later Hewitt flippantly claimed 60 Minutes destroyed television by equating news with the profit motive; news organizations sought money in magazine and entertainment news programs, reducing their long-standing, and expensive, commitments to breaking news. But Hewitt set the groundwork. His blunt statements suggesting that success depends on marketing, and his continuous refinements of the product often generated controversy. Audiences must experience stories in the pit of their stomach, the narrative must take the viewer by the throat, and, noted Hewitt, when a segment is over it's not significant what they have been told--"only what they remember of what you tell them." Hewitt predicted high ratings if 60 Minutes packaged stories, not news items, as "attractively as Hollywood packages fiction." Such stories require drama, a simplified structure, a narrative maximizing conflict, a quick editing pace, and issues filtered through personalities. Although the series profiled celebrities, politicians, and popular or well-known people in numerous fields, the stress on personality meant that a human being would be positioned in the story in a manner inviting the public to "identify with" or "stand against."
The 60 Minutes correspondents narrated and focused these "mini-dramas." Several of the show's journalists had established positions as personalities before 60 Minutes, but with the program's growing success and significance, the correspondents reached international celebrity status, becoming crusaders, detectives, sensitive and introspective guides through social turmoil, and insightful probers of the human psyche. A confrontational style of journalism, pioneered by Mike Wallace, grew and was embraced by a more confrontational society. In the 1970s certain correspondents seemed to speak for a public under siege by institutional greed and deceit.
Through it all Hewitt remained sensitive to balancing the series at any one time with varying casts. Wallace's role remained consistent as the crusading detective, played, as the series began, opposite Harry Reasoner's calm, analytical and introspective persona. As correspondents were added--Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer, Meredith Vieria, Steve Kroft, and Lesley Stahl--Hewitt developed complimentary personas. The correspondents became part of his "new form" of storytelling, allowing the audience to watch their intimate involvement in discovering information, tripping up an interviewee, and developing a narrative. As a result, the correspondents are often central to Hewitt's notion of stories as morality plays, the confrontation of vice and virtue.
The most explosive segments of 60 Minutes, for example, accuse companies, government agencies, or organizations of massive deceit, of harming public welfare. Correspondents, often in alliance with an ex-employee or group member, have confronted the Illinois Power Company, Audi Motors, the Worldwide Church of God, tobacco companies, Allied Chemical Corporation, the U.S. Army, adoption agencies and land development corporations. Smaller entities and individuals, such as owners of fraudulent health spas, used car dealers, or clothing manufacturers, often put faces and names on compelling images of deceit. Because of these investigative segments, the series was the focus of consistent examination by the press concerning such issues as journalism ethics and integrity. 60 Minutes has been taken to task for having correspondents or representatives use false identities to generate stories, establishing sting operations for the camera, confronting the person under inquiry by surprise, and revealing new documents without prior notice to a cooperative interviewee in order to increase the shock value of the information. By raising these issued the series focused attention on emerging techniques of broadcast journalism. But even when stories relied on more thoughtful critical analysis they could shake the foundations of institutions and have strong and lasting effects. Morley Safer's 1993 story arguing that the contemporary art world is filled with "junk" sparked more than two years of defense and response from different members of the art community.
In spite of widespread knowledge of these strong techniques, individuals still subject themselves to interviews, offering the audience an opportunity to anticipate who will win the battle. Indeed, part of the appeal of 60 Minutes is whether the possibility of getting a corporate perspective across is worth the risk encountered by company representatives when facing the penetrating (aggressive) questioning and fact-finding by the correspondent. The consequences and repercussions of appearing on the program can be severe. Stark revelations by eyewitnesses have lead to extensive damage and bankruptcy of companies, even to death threats. One person, after disclosing odometer tampering in the automotive industry had his house blown up.
The high stakes involved in such public confrontations led Herb Schmertz, former vice president of the Mobil Oil Corporation, to write a guide for corporate America instructing companies and individuals how to prepare and withstand an interview by 60 Minutes' correspondents. But public figures still appear, seeking to enhance their position or rectify a situation. In doing so they risk unexpected changes in the direction of public opinion, as demonstrated by Ross Perot's drop in approval ratings after raising questionable topics in his interview.
The series continues to establish historical markers regarding legal issues of press freedom, and some cases have set precedents for legal aspects of broadcast journalism. One reason for this continuing involvement is that for each segment, the outtakes, transcribed interviews, editors' notes, and relevant documents are archived and entered into a database at CBS. Following the segment entitled "The Selling of Col. Herbert," for example, Col. Anthony Herbert initiated a defamation suit against producer Barry Lando. The suit was dismissed after ten years, but not before the Supreme Court decision giving Herbert's lawyers the right to "direct evidence" about the editorial process. Specifically, they were given access to film outtakes and editors' notes that could establish malicious intent by illustrating the producer's "state of mind." Dr. Carl Galloway's slander suit against Dan Rather and 60 Minutes went to court after Rather left the show to anchor the Evening News, but when Rather, and the series' production process, were scrutinized on the witness stand the examination raised questions about the power of editing to construct specific images of an individual.
In these and other cases, 60 Minutes continues, intentionally and unintentionally, to be at the center of struggles concerning the rights of the press. Risks taken by the series have the potential to harm the image and credibility of CBS as well as that of the program, and such concerns have conditioned CBS and the broadcast industry to a rapid response to legal challenges.
But 60 Minutes has also become one of most analyzed programs concerning television's effect on viewer behavior. When a story endorsed moderate consumption of red wine to prevent heart disease, sales of red wine jumped significantly. Although the use and gradual discontinuation of Alar on apple crops received moderate coverage by the press, 60 Minutes addressed the issue of this use of the cancer causing agent in 1989. The story, and other media reports contributing to what became a national hysteria, cost the agriculture industry over 100 million dollars. The series' scrutiny of companies even led to tangible effects on their stocks. During one two year period, stocks rose an average 14% for companies negatively profiled on 60 Minutes. Market insiders, aware of the upcoming story, bought to increase shares, knowing that the market had previously responded to the companies' problems.
Critics, researchers, and the public continue to investigate the reasons behind the longevity of 60 Minutes as a popular culture phenomenon. The series' timeliness, its bold stand on topics, its confrontations with specific individuals all provides audiences with the pleasure of knowing accountability does exist. For some the program compels with its crusades, as in the case of Lenell Geter, freed from life imprisonment after his case was explored and analyzed. For others the appeal comes with vigorous self-defense, as when Senator Alfonso D'Amato (Republican, New York) poured out his wrath in a 30-minute response to claims that he misused state funds.
Point/Counterpoint, a program feature from 1971 to 1979, illustrated that two opposing positions can remain unreconciled, and served, in three-minute debates between left- and right-wing critics, to agitate viewer emotions with ideological battles. The segment's popularity probably explains why, in 1996, Hewitt added a similar "commentator" section, resurrecting the art of speaking what the public may think but dare not say with such force. And the series' perennial "light" moment, "A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney" confirms the value of personal opinion on otherwise mundane matters.
60 Minutes is also able to generate news about itself and thus keep the series attractive by humanizing its trials and tribulations. For over two decades the producers, correspondents, and Hewitt have played out issues in public. Twice, producer Marion Goldin quit the program after accusing the unit of sexism. Hewitt charged Rooney with hypocrisy for criticizing CBS owner, Lawrence Tisch, on air instead of quitting. Wallace has been reprimanded for using hidden cameras to tape a reporter who agreed to help him with a story. And when the series dropped to number 13 in the 1993-94 Nielsen ratings (after being first for two years), the drop became a "story." Hewitt and others blamed CBS, Inc. for losing affiliates in urban areas and for allowing the FOX network win the bid for Sunday afternoon football, 60 Minutes' long-time lead-in program.
When Dateline NBC, a similar news magazine, was programmed opposite 60 Minutes in the spring of 1996, the press covered the move as a battle for the hearts and minds of the audience. But for several months before the direct competition, Hewitt began to revamp the series, adding brief hard news segments, announcing production of new stories throughout the summer, adding a "Commentary" section, and tracking down new and unfamiliar topics. Although the series has been criticized for following compelling stories broken by magazines such as The Nation, instead of breaking news, the strategy meets Hewitt's mandate to impact a large audience. Entering its fourth decade, then, 60 Minutes continues to shift strategy and change in form. The one constant is that the program's producers still believe in validating its journalistic integrity through its popularity on American television.
Harry Reasoner (1968-70, 1978-91)
Morley Safer (1970-)
Dan Rather (1975-81)
Andrew Rooney (1978-)
Ed Bradley (1981-)
Diane Sawyer (1984-89)
Meredith Vieira (1989-91)
Steve Kroft (199-)
Leslie Stahl (1991-)
PRODUCER Don Hewitt
September 1968-June 1971 Tuesday 10:00-11:00
January 1972-June 1972 Sunday 6:00-7:00
January 1973-June 1973 Sunday 6:00-7:00
June 1973-September 1973 Friday 8:00-9:00
January 1974-June 1974 Sunday 6:00-7:00
July 1974-September 1974 Sunday 9:30-10:30
September 1974-June 1975 Sunday 6:00-7:00
July 1975-September 1975 Sunday 9:30-10:30
December 1975- Sunday 7:00-8:00
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_______________. "Child Abuse: A Compound Travesty." Los Angeles Times, 21 May 1986.
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Shales, Tom. "Still Ticking at 25: The Great Granddaddy of Magazine Shows." The Washington (D.C.) Post, 13 November 1993.
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Wallace, Mike, and Gary Paul Gates. Close Encounters. New York: Morrow, 1984.
Who Talked About This Show
- Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes' coverage of the Vietnam War
Clip begins at: 00:14, Duration: 10m 20s
- Ed Bradley on being hired at 60 Minutes
Clip begins at: 02:22, Duration: 02m 38s
- Lesley Stahl on having to “audition” for 60 Minutes, on a story about the Romanian adoption system
Clip begins at: 12:14, Duration: 02m 14s
- Andy Rooney on the genesis of his on-camera pieces for 60 Minutes
Clip begins at: 00:30, Duration: 01m 51s
- Sheila Nevins on being asked to produce 60 Minutes
Clip begins at: 00:40
- Morley Safer on the impact of the Cam Ne story
Clip begins at: 28:55, Duration: 01m 02s