Prior to the emergence of prime-time network newsmagazine programs like 20/20, Primetime Live, and Dateline, and before the era of round-the-clock cable news on CNN, MS/NBC, and Fox News Channel, the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes was unchallenged as television's premiere news program. From its initial broadcast on September 24, 1968, 60 Minutes pioneered the "magazine format" of television journalism, which allowed it to run a mixture of hard news, investigative reports, personality profiles, and light feature pieces. Its prominence enabled it to feature candid stories on the most powerful world leaders, distinguished artists, and crafty villains of the last thirty years. Although it was not a ratings sensation during its first several seasons, by the mid-1970s it grew to become the most prestigious, most watched, and most imitated news program on television.
The creation of 60 Minutes came about after its producer, Don Hewitt, was fired in 1964 from his position as producer of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Before his dismissal, he had become a key behind-the-scenes player at CBS News. Hewitt had directed Edward R. Murrow's See It Now programs in the 1950s, including the first live coast-to-coast hookup in November 1951 which depicted the simultaneously broadcast images of the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges. In 1960, he produced and directed the nation's first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Hewitt was also remembered for such technical achievements as the invention of cue cards, the development of subtitles to identify people and places on screen, the creation of the "double projector" system to enable smoother editing, and coining the term "anchor man." After a dispute with Fred Friendly, president of CBS News, he was relegated to the network's lowly documentary division. He describes his attempts to revive the little-watched, moribund format by stating, "Sometime in 1967 it dawned on me that if we split those public affairs hours into three parts to deal with the viewers' short attention span … and come up with personal journalism in which a reporter takes the viewer along with him on the story, I was willing to bet that we could take informational programming out of the ratings cellar."
Hewitt presented his newly fashioned documentary program in the guise of a newsmagazine, such as Time or Newsweek. Each week his chief correspondents would present several stories on a wide variety of topics. A brief concluding segment in the early years, titled "Point Counterpoint," consisted of debates between liberal and conservative columnists Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick. In 1978, writer Andy Rooney assumed this segment to present his own brand of short, humorous commentary. Each portion of the program was separated by an image of a ticking stopwatch, which became the show's symbol.
By the late 1970s 60 Minutes became one of television's most popular shows with its concept of stories presented in a "Hollywood style" that emphasized attractively packaged factual events. In 1979, it was the highest rated television program of the season—a distinction that no other news show had ever attained. Its great popular success made 60 Minutes one of the most profitable programs in TV history. Costing only about half the price of an hour-long entertainment show while commanding the same commercial rates of such series allowed CBS to earn enormous sums of money from what was once the least-watched network program type. Much of the show's great appeal was based on its increasingly hard-hitting investigative reports. Presented mainly by aggressive correspondents Mike Wallace and Dan Rather, the show exposed a number of frauds and abuses including the sale of phony passports, kickbacks in the Medicaid business, and mislabeling in the meat-packing industry. Reporter Morley Safer commented on the show's ability to get dishonest businessmen and scam artists on camera by saying, "A crook doesn't believe he's made it as a crook until he's been on 60 Minutes. "
The show's greatest strength derives from its correspondents and their choice of stories. Harry Reasoner, Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer, Steve Kroft, and Leslie Stahl were correspondents at various times and were able to deliver insightful pieces within the show's potpourri format. One week a reporter would be speaking from a war zone and the next speaking to movie stars or pool hustlers. The large number of correspondents freed each one of them from being studio-bound, thus allowing them to report from the field themselves. Hewitt's focus on "personality journalism" allowed the reporter's own characteristics to shine through. Mike Wallace was seen to embody the image of the tough reporter, while Morley Safer projected a more elegant image. All were considered leaders in their field. The reporter's personal team of six producers, a cameraperson, assistant, soundperson, and electrician supports each on-air personality.
Of all the journalists associated with 60 Minutes, none is as strongly identified with the program as is Mike Wallace. His intense reporter's image came only after a long and varied career. He was a radio performer in the 1940s and appeared as an actor on many popular shows like Sky King, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, and Ma Perkins. After moving to television in 1949, he hosted a variety of talk, interview, and game shows. Following the 1962 death of his son Peter in a climbing accident, Wallace decided to become a straight newsman. He possesses a direct, often abrasive, style that is well suited for the show's confrontational format. He is generally regarded as the most fearless reporter in the business and is unafraid to ask the most provocative questions even of friends. In the 1990s the nearly eighty-year-old Wallace showed no signs of slowing down. His continued tenacity has caused him to be referred to as the "geriatric enfante terrible of television."
Although it has long been considered television's most distinguished news program, 60 Minutes has not been without its critics or controversies. Some claimed it practiced "ambush journalism" by editing its massive amounts of interview footage to distort the positions of some of its subjects. Others have complained the many off-screen producers do the majority of the reporting while the on-air correspondents merely provide each story's narration. In the 1990s, humorist Andy Rooney was temporarily suspended for a supposedly racist remark. Other low moments in the program's long history include its being duped in 1972 by a forged diary of industrialist Howard Hughes and, most seriously, its being forced to delay an exposé on the tobacco industry due to the network's fears of litigation. Despite these problems, 60 Minutes remains a respected program that is trusted by viewers in Middle America.
An examination of the personalities, issues, lifestyles, and major events covered on 60 Minutes provides a remarkable window on America from the late 1960s onward. Don Hewitt created a format that has allowed for a varied presentation of ideas that have shaped the post-Vietnam era. He and his able correspondents, led by Mike Wallace, revealed to the networks that factual, documentary programming could be highly successful both in terms of journalism and ratings. Their success led to a proliferation of other television newsmagazines in the 1990s. In 1998, it was announced that CBS was planning on expanding the show's franchise by creating 60 Minutes II.
Coffey, Frank. 60 Minutes: 25 Years of Television's Finest Hour. LosAngeles, General Publishing Group, 1993.
Hewitt, Don. Minute by Minute.… New York, Random House, 1985.
From its initial broadcast in 1968, 60 Minutes pioneered the "magazine format" of television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) journalism, which allowed it to run a mixture of hard news, investigative reports, personality profiles, and light feature pieces. Its prominence allowed the show to feature candid stories on the most powerful world leaders, distinguished artists, and crafty criminals of the last thirty years. After several years during which it struggled to find an audience, by the mid-1970s it became the most prestigious, most watched, and most imitated news program on television.
Don Hewitt (1922–), a producer at CBS, created 60 Minutes as the TV equivalent of such periodicals as Time (see entry under 1920s—Print Culture in volume 2) and Newsweek. Each week, his chief correspondents would present several stories on a wide variety of topics. In 1978, writer Andy Rooney (1919–) joined the program to present his own brand of short, humorous commentary. Each portion of the program was separated by an image of a ticking stopwatch, which became the show's symbol.
60 Minutes became one of television's most popular shows with its concept of stories presented in a "Hollywood style" that emphasized attractively packaged factual events. Its great popular success and low production costs made it one of the most profitable programs in TV history. Much of the show's great appeal was based on its hard-hitting investigative reports. Presented mainly by such aggressive correspondents as Mike Wallace (1918–) and Dan Rather (1931–), the show exposed a number of real-life frauds and abuses.
The show's greatest strength came from its correspondents and their choice of stories. Harry Reasoner (1923–1991), Ed Bradley (1941–), Diane Sawyer (1945–), Morley Safer (1931–), and Lesley Stahl (1941–) were correspondents at various times and were able to deliver insightful pieces within the show's variety format. Of all the journalists associated with 60 Minutes, none is as strongly identified with the program as is Wallace. He possesses a direct, often abrasive, style that is well suited for the show's confrontational format.
An examination of the personalities, issues, and major events covered on 60 Minutes provides a remarkable window on America from the late 1960s onward. Hewitt created a format that has allowed for a varied presentation of ideas that have shaped the post–Vietnam War (1954–75) era. He and his correspondents revealed to the networks that factual, documentary programming could be highly successful both in terms of journalism and ratings. In 1999, CBS News introduced 60 Minutes II, hoping to snare a large audience for the program on a different night.
For More Information
Coffey, Frank. 60 Minutes: 25 Years of Television's Finest Hour. Los Angeles: General Publishing Group, 1993.
Hewitt, Don. Minute by Minute. New York: Random House, 1985.
Madsen, Axel. 60 Minutes: The Power & Politics of America's Most Popular News Show. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984.
"60 Minutes." CBSNews.com.http://www.cbsnews.com/sections/60minutes/main3415.shtml (accessed March 20, 2002).
60 MINUTES. The first of the modern "newsmagazines," 60 Minutes debuted on 24 September 1968 over the CBS television network. By 1975, it settled into the Sunday evening time slot, where it remained. 60 Minutes presented two or three separately produced short documentaries each week, all under the editorial supervision of executive producer Don Hewitt, who had been with the show from its outset. The correspondents who have appeared on the show are Mike Wallace (1968–), Harry Reasoner (1968–1970,1978–1991), Morley Safer (1970–), Dan Rather (1975–1981), Ed Bradley (1981–), Diane Sawyer (1984–1989), Meredith Vieira (1989–1991), Steve Kroft (1989–), and Leslie Stahl (1991–). Beginning in
1978, Andy Rooney began offering short observational segments.
Providing a prime-time venue for serious investigative reporting, for a while 60 Minutes was known for the confrontational manner in which correspondents like Mike Wallace approached their interview subjects-victims. What is most surprising about the show, however, is its extraordinary commercial success. It spent nineteen straight seasons in the Nielsen top ten (from 1977 to 1996), five as the most watched program on network television. Other networks, hoping for similar successes, introduced a variety of newsmagazines based on the 60 Minutes model. In 1999, CBS introduced 60 Minutes II.
Madsen, Axel. 60 Minutes: The Power and Politics of America's Most Popular TV News Show. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984.
See alsoTelevision: Programming and Influence .