15 October 2009

CBS Enters 42nd Year Of '60 Minutes'

From L.A. Times

As the news show begins its 42nd season (the first since the passing of creator Don Hewitt), it's hot again. They're still using the same recipe, but now there are more cooks in the kitchen.

"60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager, left, goes over a story with
correspondent Scott Pelley.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Change creeps slowly through the ninth-floor newsroom of the West 57th Street high-rise that houses "60 Minutes," CBS' storied Sunday evening newsmagazine. For decades, the office assignments on Correspondent's Row, a bank of glass-walled rooms facing the Hudson River, were sacrosanct, with the biggest space next to the executive producer belonging to Mike Wallace.

But Wallace's office has been largely empty since the 91-year-old became correspondent emeritus three years ago. Last month, executive producer Jeff Fager quietly decided that it was time for Steve Kroft, the longest serving of the full-time correspondents, to inherit the space.

"This is hallowed ground," said Kroft on a recent afternoon, still surrounded by boxes, the walls empty save for a row of gleaming Emmys lining a high shelf.

What may seem like minor office shuffling is freighted with the symbolism of a generational shift at "60 Minutes," which begins its 42nd season tonight. While Fager stresses that the broadcast is an ensemble effort, he acknowledged that Kroft, a 64-year-old, squared-jawed reporter who got his start sending dispatches from Vietnam, emerged in the last year as the face of the program, in part because of his reports on the financial crisis and his much-watched interviews with candidate and President Obama. "I don't think anyone can tell a story better," Fager said.

Kroft's rising profile is not the only change on the broadcast, the most-watched news program on TV and arguably the only one that still commands a mass audience on a regular basis. For all of its endurance, "60 Minutes" has quietly entered a transitional period. This will be the first season without creator Don Hewitt, who passed away last month at age 86 and had remained a lively presence in the newsroom, even after his retirement in 2004.

And the ranks of correspondents have grown with a batch of younger contributors, bringing the number of reporters to 10 -- almost the size of a football team. The influx troubles the program's veterans, who fret that the program's identity is being blurred.

"I think that the public gets a little confused sometimes," said correspondent Lesley Stahl, sitting in her tidy office down the hall from Kroft.

That's only amped up the famously intense competition among the staff. "We are all trying to find the most compelling stories on Earth, and I think that's something that drives the energy of the broadcast," said correspondent Scott Pelley.

The addition of new contributors is an acknowledgment that there's a limit to "60 Minutes' " reach. For the last decade, the median age of viewers has hovered around 60. (That's a year younger than that of the three evening newscasts, but several years older than other network newsmagazines, according to Nielsen.) One of the show's most recognizable figures is 91-year-old essayist Andy Rooney.

"The cultivation of this new cast of characters is an attempt to lure a younger audience," said Richard Campbell, director of Miami University's journalism program and the author of "60 Minutes and the News: A Mythology for Middle America." The risk, he added, is a dilution of the brand once emblematized by the likes of Wallace and the late Ed Bradley.

The show has long been CBS News' most prestigious property, and last season it managed a rare feat, reversing a nearly decade-long trend of ratings declines. The audience grew to an average of 14.3 million people, up 10% from the year before and the biggest in seven years. The increase came as most other newscasts lost audience, including both "CBS Evening News" and ABC's "World News." Viewers came not only for Kroft's Obama interviews but Katie Couric's exclusive with Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger and Pelley's sit-down with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

The boost in ratings was particularly sweet for a program that has stayed true to the format that Hewitt hit on four decades ago: a weekly menu of meaty interviews, exhaustive investigative pieces and whimsical features. One of the few big changes was last season's conversion to high definition. In a modern flourish, producers also added a boom camera in the studio that zooms in on the correspondents as they introduce their pieces, seated on a stool instead of a chair. "Whatever the ethos of this broadcast was, it still is, and I think that's the most important thing," said 77-year-old correspondent Morley Safer, who joined the program in 1970, puffing on a cigarette behind his desk.

Competitors such as NBC's "Dateline" and ABC's "20/20," originally modeled after "60 Minutes," now largely pursue crime stories and celebrity interviews. (ABC recently trumpeted Barbara Walters' sit-down with La Toya Jackson.) They average about half the audience of "60 Minutes."

Not all its competitors enjoy the consistent time slot or the lift "60 Minutes" gets from its NFL game lead-in. But above all, it's the program's fervent embrace of hard news that has made it singular -- and the most sought-after platform in television.

Case in point: In early February, weeks after Obama took office, the White House told "60 Minutes" that the president might be available for another sit-down with Kroft. But producers didn't pursue it, because the broadcast already had a big story for that Sunday: Couric's exclusive with Sullenberger. (Kroft interviewed Obama a month later.)

Now the pressure is on "60 Minutes" to keep delivering those kind of must-watch hours, without the benefit of a historic presidential election. "More than ever, people are looking for us to have a big story on Sunday," Fager said. "With that, you create certain expectations."

On a recent cloudy afternoon, Fager sat in his corner office, anxiously mulling which pieces should be featured in the season-premiere episode. The no-nonsense producer with closely cropped hair scanned a run-down that included a story by Kroft about the earning potential of dead celebrities. For all the program's success last season, he worries about it losing its perch.

"I fear it all the time," he said. "I know that we have a huge amount of support from CBS, but you can't ever take that for granted. We're in the business of drawing audience. You're only as good as your next broadcast."

He was leaning toward leading with an exclusive with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, whose classified assessment about the need for more troops was recently leaked. The piece is a classic "60 Minutes" get: an in-depth profile with a powerful figure, timed for maximum impact. (The McChrystal interview is scheduled for tonight, along with Kroft's "Working Stiffs" story and Safer's interview with Irving Picard, the government-appointed liquidator of Bernard Madoff's assets.)

Fager, who worked as a producer for Kroft and Safer before serving as executive producer of "CBS Evening News" and "60 Minutes II," said he plans to make Afghanistan a major focus on the program this season, eager to challenge the conventional wisdom that the public has tired of the war. Several correspondents spent time in the battlefield this summer, but the McChrystal piece was done by David Martin, the network's national security correspondent, part of Fager's effort to broaden the number of faces on the program by drawing from the entire news division. .

This season, he brought aboard chief national correspondent Byron Pitts, who joins chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper as the program's new generation of contributors. (Pitts is 48, Logan is 38 and Cooper is 42.) "They add a spark to the broadcast," Fager said. "And it's nice to have someone in every age group. That's important -- we have to be thinking about what's happening in the years to come."

Couric, 52, and PBS interviewer Charlie Rose, 67, also contribute to the show, along with the program's regular correspondents: Kroft, Stahl, Pelley, Safer and Bob Simon. (Couric would like to do five or six pieces a year, but Fager said her busy schedule as anchor of "CBS Evening News" makes it difficult. On a white board outside his office listing the staff's current story assignments, she was down for just three.)

Some are unsettled by the burgeoning ranks.

"I think you can go too far in the variety of people," Safer said. "I think to some extent, not just the die-hards, the people who view it pretty often, like the comfort of knowing the people who are reporting."

Kroft was blunter. "I don't like it," he said. "I think the show ought to have a set cast."

Pitts, the newest arrival, said he understands that anxiety. "It seems to me that part of the historic greatness of '60 Minutes' was you have that core of outstanding journalists that the American people can rely on and depend on, and I think that formula has been successful," he said. "But just like every great news organization, you need some arms in the bullpen."

Fager said he's not concerned that the broadcast is overbooked, noting that about 80% of the 100 stories produced each season are by the five main correspondents. Still, the expanded staff has intensified the already-fierce competition to get on the air. Such battles could descend into shouting matches during Hewitt's time; nowadays, the atmosphere is less volatile. The mood in the 75-person newsroom is one of brisk efficiency. "There's very, very little blood," Pelley said. "It's a friendly competition, but each and every one of us really likes to win."

Stahl said she's relieved that the internal jockeying is no longer accompanied by "screaming and yelling" that marked Hewitt's tenure. "Jeff runs a calmer shop," she said, adding that he "is doing a sensational job. It's never easy to come after the genius."

That's not to say Hewitt isn't missed. Last season, he made a point of popping in the office every Monday to congratulate the staff on the previous night's broadcast. "There really is a little bit of him in all of us," said Fager. "I think the reason we're able to maintain our consistency is because he taught us so well."

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