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'60 Minutes II’: Aged Beef

Amid all the hoopla surrounding the introductions of the broadcast networks’ new fall schedules last week, Leslie Moonves put the bullet in the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes. The CBS chairman and Viacom co-COO insists it was a decision based solely on ratings. The scandal surrounding dicey documents used in a Dan Rather report on George W. Bush’s National Guard service, Moonves protests, had nothing to do with pulling the plug. Instead, it was an age thing. Like Judging Amy and JAG and other veteran shows, 60 MinutesWednesday skewed older than everything on the network, including the venerable newsmagazine that spawned it.

Sadly, even without the taint of “memogate,” odds are this would have been the last season for 60 Minutes II. Forget that, in its six-year history, the show once derided as “60 Junior” had won a raft of Emmys and often was more compelling then the original. These days, there is little corporate will to promote news of quality and substance in prime time. It has been standard operating procedure for a long-time that the way to garner ratings is to promote the hell out of Paula Abdul’s injudicious behavior or the runaway bride’s sprint from the altar.

Throughout last week, as the networks worked their hype machines in one splashy new season presentation after another, as interesting as what they promoted was what they left out. At ABC, CBS and NBC, their prime time magazines received nary a mention. The biggest news about any of them was that Ann Curry would co-anchor the Friday edition of Dateline. But that’s the way it is. Editions of NBC’s Dateline, ABC’s PrimeTime Live and 20/20, as well as CBS’ 48 Hours Mysteries, seem scheduled almost as afterthoughts in time slots where their respective networks have little hope for ratings growth. As far as content, all of them traffic much more in the sensational than in the substantive. Indeed, 48 Hours Mysteries basically sells itself a reality version of CSI.

That leaves the original 60 Minutes as the last bastion of old school. It not only practices prime time journalism the old-fashioned way, it also has an ancient audience, something pointedly out of style at CBS these days. Still, when Moonves pulled the plug on 60 Minutes II, he promised “nothing will endanger” the Sunday show.

But from here, 60 Minutes does look like an endangered species. Sure, under executive producer Jeff Fager, the show seems sharper, more focused than it did in the final years of legendary creator Don Hewitt’s reign. But the days are long past since it was a Sunday ritual that prompted water-cooler conversation on Monday. That’s now the domain of Desperate Housewives or the HBO series of the moment.

Last week, just as the networks were unveiling for Madison Avenue, Wall Street and the press the millions of dollars they spent on new shows, another ritual was happening in New York: the Peabody Awards. Among those receiving that prestigious honor were such worthy documentaries and series as Discovery Channel’s Black Sky: The Race for Space, CNBC’s The Age of Wal-Mart: Inside America’s Most Powerful Company, The History Channel’s Rwanda—Do Scars Ever Fade?, Trio’s The N-Word and Link TV’s Mosaic: World News From the Middle East. Local-news operations were cited, too, including WITI Milwaukee for a series called The Bully Project, WBAL Baltimore for an investigation into Chesapeake Bay pollution, and WTVF Nashville, Tenn., for its long investigation into government corruption in Tennessee.

The single Peabody awarded to a commercial broadcast network was the one given to 60 Minutes II for its report on the Iraq Abu Ghraib prison scandal. And we all know how much the award for that groundbreaking story meant when it came time to set CBS’ new fall schedule.

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