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60 Minutes: How We Saw It

Throughout 60 Minutes’ 40-year history as a television phenomenon, B&C has observed and weighed in on its triumphs and moments of drama and controversy, its many landmarks and the way its unique mix of tenacity and veracity became ingrained in the minds of viewers.

An April 23, 1979, report, “High Court Opens the Minds of Journalists to Investigation,” covered the Supreme Court decision that reporters had to answer questions that a plaintiff in a libel suit wants to ask regarding their “state of mind” at the time the offending material was prepared.

The whopping decision was a result of a controversial Mike Wallace report accusing Colonel Anthony Herbert of lying about his Vietnam experiences, which led to a bitter, protracted legal battle between Herbert and CBS that was eventually tossed out of court. Nine years later, B&C reported on the Belo decision that its six CBS affiliates wouldn’t air a 60 Minutes report on Jack Kevorkian. The episode is infamous for showing actual footage of Dr. Kevorkian fatally injecting a patient suffering from ALS.

At the time, Wallace told B&C he had no idea the piece would create the stir it did. He also dismissed the contention that the report had been run to boost sweeps ratings as “bullshit. We’ve been on the air for 30 years,” Wallace said. “We don’t need a story like that to generate ratings.”

And yet the show was often quite willing to admit its mistakes when necessary. Executive producer Don Hewitt made his first on-air appearance late in 1998 to apologize for a broadcast a year earlier on Columbian drug smuggling that turned out to be fake. “We … you … and television viewers in 14 countries were taken in,” Hewitt said of the British Television report 60 Minutes picked up. “To make amends, we felt obligated to lay it all out in detail and ask you [to] please accept our apology,” Hewitt told the TV audience.

But undoubtedly the most fascinating and detailed report on the show came in the Feb. 11, 1980, issue of Broadcasting, in a four-page profile of Hewitt. The story cited the show’s whopping 28.8 rating and 46 share to that point in the season, easily earning the top spot in the Nielsen Media Research ratings, with a two-point gap over runner-up Three’s Company. It also cited a then-current Los Angeles Times poll concluding that 85% of those surveyed (1,047 adults) said they regularly watch television news, compared with the 74% who said they regularly follow political and governmental news by reading newspapers.

In the Broadcasting feature, Hewitt -- who was inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame in 1993 -- talked about his original thought process leading to the creation of the hit.

“I said to myself: ‘I bet if we went multisubject in the hour, had no theme, disparate stories, if we made it very, very personal journalism’ -- and I don’t mean advocacy journalism; we made it personally oriented to Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner [the first co-editors] -- ‘If we package reality as attractively as Hollywood packages fiction, I’ll bet we could double the audience share.’ Well, we’ve done better than that.”

Throughout the story, Hewitt gave some insight into the staff and process of the show, its 21 producers, 21 film editors, four or five researchers -- all told 75 staffers, a weekly budget of “somewhere between $175,000 and $200,000,” the five producers each co-editor got to work with and the 20 produced pieces Hewitt had to choose from at any given time.

But he posited that the success of the show had less to do with chemistry than alchemy. The essential element for making it all work, he said, was a certain “psychic energy.”

He also went on to explain why, at the time, another proposed CBS newsmagazine, Who’s Who, didn’t work out.

“If you want to do a show like Who’s Who about people, you have to get a little bit tabloid, a little bit more into the People magazine kind of thing,” he said at the time. “I think CBS News thought that would be damaging to its reputation.”

And amazingly enough, the Hewitt profile also listed the single feature the executive producer wished he could add to the formula of 60 Minutes: satire. Given the popularity of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, Hewitt clearly felt the right itch, although there seemed -- and still seems -- no way to make that work on the show.

Not that it stopped Hewitt from trying; he admitted that, beyond whatever Andy Rooney felt compelled to report on every week, “I have spent more time, money and effort trying to develop” something “beyond the fringe,” yet still able to fit within the show’s format. Hewitt even went so far as to request input from Chicago’s famed Second City troupe. He also considered an animated version of Rooney’s reports. “So Andy Rooney would lip-sync to a character called Andy,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt couldn’t be entirely on the money on all things, but he ended his lengthy conversation with Broadcasting by correctly predicting the show’s far-reaching legacy. In the future, he said, 60 Minutes would be “a permanent fixture in television, just like the evening news.” That’s a legacy B&C has been privileged to observe.