NEW YORK — Last February, facing a challenge from a new Sunday night edition of "Dateline NBC," "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt announced the first changes on the CBS newsmagazine in many years. In addition to adding more breaking-news stories to the mix, three prominent commentators from print journalism--Molly Ivins, P.J. O'Rourke and Stanley Crouch--were hired to do weekly commentary.
The idea was that the segment--with Ivins debating each week with either O'Rourke or Crouch--would be a hipper version of the "Point/Counterpoint" opinion-wrestling that went on between columnists Shana Alexander and James Kirkpatrick on "60 Minutes" in the 1970s.
This weekend, Hewitt is pulling the plug.
After only eight outings in their 13-week contracts, Ivins, O'Rourke and Crouch have taped their last segment for "60 Minutes."
CBS has not officially announced their departure, saying they could be back later. But they've been told it's over. And--most importantly--Hewitt, the creator of "60 Minutes," says it's over.
"It's not working," Hewitt declared in an interview. "This is nothing against them--they're terrific writers--but it's not working, and viewers are telling us so. They're saying the segment is a distraction from what's coming next in the show, the regular '60 Minutes' stories; and I've got to listen to that."
How do the three print journalists feel about their close encounter with TV fame and cancellation? Ivins, who taped two segments before leaving for vacation in Alaska, couldn't be reached for reaction, and O'Rourke, who was leaving for a trip to Russia, declined to comment.
But friends of the two said it was tacky that the commentators had to read the news of their imminent demise in the newspaper. Last week, before he had informed Ivins, Crouch and O'Rourke, Hewitt told a TV columnist that he thought the segment wasn't succeeding and intended to take it off soon.
"I called my agent's office that day, and they sounded like they'd been to a funeral for twins," Crouch related in an interview this week. "I hadn't seen the item. I called a '60 Minutes' producer and she immediately switched me to Don, thinking that's what I'd called about." An embarrassed Hewitt told Crouch the news.
Crouch said he did not have bad feelings about the experience.
"This is show biz; that's the way this world works," he said. "If I were 35 years old instead of 50 and had thought I was going to become some famous media star overnight through '60 Minutes,' maybe I'd feel differently. They tried something new--and that was that."
The segment--which appeared in the middle of the show--drew mixed reviews. Some critics welcomed Hewitt's addition of opinion pieces, but others said the commentaries sounded too much like newspaper editorials and not enough like TV. The dueling duos also were hampered, critics said, by being videotaped in their separate cities, reacting to each other's scripts instead of being seated in the same TV studio.
Some at "60 Minutes" think the segment should have been given more weeks on the air to grow. Longtime commentator Andy Rooney wasn't willing to go that far, but he said of the three columnists: "I think maybe they got a bad shake. I don't think they got enough help making the transition from writing for print to writing for television.
"Writing for TV is different--you have to write for the ear," Rooney continued. "And you have to address subjects of interest to people all over the country."
Rooney was not welcoming when Ivins and Crouch kicked things off April 28. The 77-year-old commentator didn't want any other "60 Minutes" pundits on the air besides himself. So he greeted their debut with historical clips of such briefly tried "60 Minutes" commentators as Bill Moyers.
"Keep the day job," Rooney sardonically advised his new colleagues.
"I was threatened," Rooney admits now. "But now I feel seedy about having made negative remarks about them. . . . Of course, it's easier for me to say that now that they're no longer going to be on the air."