Monday, October 14, 2002

CBS ponders future of `60 Minutes'

Hewitt approaches 80th birthday with uncertain future

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

How do you say goodbye to a television legend who's not ready to say goodbye?

There's no easy answer to that question, being asked quietly these days in the halls of CBS News about Don Hewitt, for whom the label "legend" is befitting.

Mr. Hewitt directed the first network television newscast. In 1960, he produced the first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. He started 60 Minutes in 1968 - inventing the newsmagazine concept in the process - and has been the executive producer for every one of its broadcasts since.

And Dec. 14 is his 80th birthday.

With his age in mind, CBS executives have gingerly begun planning for a 60 Minutes without Mr. Hewitt. They have broached the subject of a transition with him and, by some accounts, it hasn't gone well.

Mr. Hewitt complained to colleagues last month that he is being pushed out, according to USA Today. (He wouldn't talk about his future with the Associated Press.) CBS insists that's not the case, has given no timetable for a change, but says it would be foolish to ignore actuarial tables and not consider the future.

The delicate situation remains unresolved.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward would not talk about his discussions with Mr. Hewitt, but praised the show for a great start to its 35th season.

"Don and I both share a desire to secure the program's quality and success forever and I certainly hope that Don is part of CBS for as long as he wants to be," Mr. Heyward said.

Laugh at retirement

The very idea of retirement seems to mortify the old lions at 60 Minutes. Mike Wallace, 84, talked about slowing down and doing fewer stories for so many years it became a joke among those who knew him.

But this year he seems to be serious, and agreed to a new contract that reflects a lightened workload by paying him less.

Mr. Hewitt, for his part, has repeatedly said he has no desire to do anything else.

"One of these days everybody is going to die and I want to die at my desk," he said at 77, when he signed a four-year contract. "I do not want to die in a canoe or on a tennis court or a golf course. This is my life."

The colorful Mr. Hewitt has always run a volatile shop, with shouting matches over stories not unusual. He does not step lightly around egos.

"Everyone feeds off his enthusiasm," said Tom Bettag, executive producer of ABC's Nightline, who worked at 60 Minutes 20 years ago. "There is no drug as good as having him say, `Your piece is great.' People would kill for that."

The resident 60 Minutes curmudgeon, Andy Rooney, marveled that just in the past week Mr. Hewitt made a simple suggestion of a word change that improved a commentary immeasurably.

"He is absolutely at the top of his game," said Mr. Rooney, 83. "I see no diminution. I think that about myself, too. I suppose I'd be the last to know if my brain went, but somebody will tell me."

While the newsmagazine may not have lost its fastball, some within CBS News believe those at 60 Minutes did not react as nimbly as other colleagues in the aftermath of last year's terrorist attacks.

60 Minutes remains the most popular newsmagazine on the air, but its ratings have slipped since the days when it was the top-rated show on television (it's No. 21 so far this season). The show still makes money for CBS, but because of lower ratings and higher salaries for its veteran staff, it's no longer wildly profitable. The audience generally skews as old as its correspondents.

Likely successors

For all the talk of a transition plan, CBS may already have the pieces in place.

Former 60 Minutes producer Jeff Fager is now running the highly regarded 60 Minutes II and is considered Mr. Hewitt's most likely successor. He would come into the show already known and respected.

"If Don dropped dead tomorrow, there are people right there who could do it," Mr. Rooney said. "It isn't as if they'd be lost."

There's no real urgency to the situation; Mr. Hewitt's contract runs through the 2003-04 season.

Richard Wald, a longtime ABC and NBC news executive now at Columbia University, is glad he's not in Mr. Heyward's position.

"You don't want to visibly hurt the feelings of the guy who brought you to the dance," Mr. Wald said. "And he did - 60 Minutes and all that it has represented over the years is a major piece of the success of the network. You can't ignore that or treat it cavalierly.

"On the other hand, you can't just let it ride," he said. "I don't know how you do that. It's one of those impossible situations."

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