Don Hewitt, who created the landmark CBS show 60 Minutes, has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 86. Reuters reports:
Hewitt worked as producer or director for CBS legends Edward R. Murrow, Douglas Edwards and Walter Cronkite but his strongest legacy was the television news magazine format on “60 Minutes” starting in 1968.
The show featured mini-documentaries segments based on investigative reporting by seasoned journalists like Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Morley Safer and Harry Reasoner. “60 Minutes” proved to be a profitable and steady ratings winner for CBS and the magazine format was widely copied by other networks.
Hewitt always had pat answers to questions about what 60 Minutes’ secret was. He often told journalists, “It’s four words every child knows: Tell me a story.” He sometimes wondered if people flocked to 60 Minutes as to church on Sunday for redemption from a week of watching entertainment programs. He sometimes said it was people’s interest in the adventures of his correspondents that made it so compelling. But he also admitted it was the talent of his staff, saying he never hired anyone who wasn’t smarter than himself.
Hewitt liked to say that 60 Minutes’ success was not the best thing to happen to the small screen. Especially later in his life, he railed about how his news magazine changed television for the worse. News programs were never supposed to make money, he argued, and the minute they did, the pressure was on for news to get ratings. The quest for ratings led to more sensational topics on an increasingly larger number of broadcasts. Indeed, as soon as 60 Minutes broke the top 20 in 1976, a parade of imitators began and, at one point in the late ’90s, nearly 30 percent of the top 20 programs were news magazines. Hewitt began to say publicly that “behind every news magazine there is a failed sitcom” – the networks were using the format to cover their mistakes, not the news.
But 60 Minutes never really suffered from the glut of competitors, relying on its quality reputation. “It’s an institution,” Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post television critic Tom Shales told People for a 1995 profile of Hewitt, “and it’s twice as good as its nearest imitator.”
Read more about Hewitt’s remarkable accomplishments here.