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Still Ticking

Every time we see a medical “mystery” palmed off as a news story, or a UFO “investigation” delivered with a straight face, and every time we witness a lurid crime exposé masquerading as primetime news, we think of how special 60 Minutes is. The show turned 40 this week, which is about the age it always seemed journalistically. Old enough to go head-to-head with presidents and sleazy car salesmen, and young enough to have some fun doing it.

So in the week that the nation's top financial institutions have been shaken to their core and when investors big and small don't know exactly what to do, ABC's UFO special was actually even more irrelevant than it would be at any other time. Does the network news establishment think it is just too far over the head of the public to present a documentary to explain to them how/why the federal government is going to use $300 billion in taxpayer money (and counting) to prop up stupid investment companies?

60 Minutes wrote the book on engaging, and frequently important, primetime journalism, and luckily it premiered at a time when news divisions still thought about responsibility and innovation. That 60 Minutes actually began to make money—lots of money—unfortunately led to a lot of other magazine shows that weren't protected by their networks, or their news presidents. Things changed. 60 Minutes created the newsmagazine genre and has remained true to it. Others, for the most part, followed the form, and then co-opted it for a new brand of infotainment.

Thanks to Don Hewitt and now Jeff Fager, 60 Minutes is a page-turning paperback suspense novel, not the dry “document” of the old-style documentary. CBS stuck to the format with the doggedness of Mike Wallace tracking down a crook.

Indeed, the best part of the 60 Minutes success story is how much it didn't change over the years. That ticking 60 Minutes watch is a perfect symbol for the show, perhaps even more as the anchors and reporters aged along with the rest of us. It suggests both the seriousness and dependability of a pocket watch—something your grandfather had, or the yard manager would use to keep the trains running on time—and the immediacy and indispensability of a stopwatch. That ticking clock says there is only so much time and so much to say.

What 60 Minutes demonstrated was that you could do engaging investigative and explanatory journalism, add liberal dollops of showmanship and drama, and grab an audience. “Once you get them, then you can inform them,” Hewitt, who created 60 Minutes, once told B&C.

Today, primetime newsmagazines generally forget the second part of that equation. Once they get viewers in the tent, often with a come-on promo promising sex or violence or pathos, their work is done. 60 Minutes always closed the deal; it was for years a top 10 program.

60 Minutes was “reality” TV before that term warped into today's voyeuristic parade. “If we could package reality as attractively as Hollywood packages fiction,” Hewitt once said, “I'll bet we could double the audience share.” It seems he tried. The original team of Wallace and Harry Reasoner eerily resonated Joe Friday and Bill Gannon on Dragnet. Bad cop, good cop.

And great program.