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AN APPRECIATION

Don Hewitt's '60 Minutes' remains timeless and elegant

The newsmagazine has stuck to its sober approach even during this shrill era.

August 20, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

When it comes to reporting news, and even the less-urgent doings of the world, plainness is a virtue. The awfulness or delight of any truly awful or delightful story will speak for itself; complex issues do not benefit from screaming.

The stopwatch that ticks through the CBS television newsmagazine "60 Minutes" perfectly encapsulates the straightforward, unadorned approach that the program -- created by Don Hewitt, who died Wednesday at age 86 -- has maintained since it went on the air in 1968 (a year in which there was much screaming, from many sides).

This is just a slice of time out of the turning world, it says; and in form as well as content, "60 Minutes" stands in elegant relief against the network newsmagazines that followed in its wake, shows whose video-game graphics and summer-blockbuster music cues pummel the viewer into a state of fear or rage even before a word is spoken.

That is not to call it dry, exactly, or uniformly high-minded. It was created, indeed, as a mix of investigative reporting, human interest and pop-culture stories, and Hewitt, who directed the first network TV news broadcast and produced the first televised presidential debate, is himself remembered as being as much of a showman as he was a newsman.

Its most recent edition included stories on Michael Vick; the military's increasing reliance on unmanned aircraft; and a profile of the British band Coldplay -- "something for the youngsters," as Ed Sullivan used to say. And then Andy Rooney talking about the stuff on his desk.

Still, compare that with the most recent "20/20," the ABC newsmagazine now co-hosted by professional alarmist John Stossel, which looked at "psychic kids" and a 50-year-old millionaire trawling for younger women online. Or NBC's "Dateline," whose website title reads "News stories about crime, celebrity and health," and whose popular features include the sting operation "To Catch a Predator."

Airing Sunday nights at 7, "60 Minutes" might be said to begin the week, but it also plays as an extension of the Sunday morning news shows, including the network's own "Face the Nation," extending some of their purpose and (vaunted) seriousness into the early evening.

It does not compete with police dramas and hospital shows -- which may partially explain the content of "20/20" and "Dateline," which do -- but with series so far from its matter, such as ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos," that it may ignore them completely.

It also strikes me, in the way it looks and operates, as one of the last remaining expressions of the old "Tiffany network's" clean-lined modernist aesthetic that flourished under network founder and chairman William S. Paley.

I understand that for many, this will be just another way of saying "old." Indeed, the episode I recently watched online was sponsored by Viagra, and, at 90, Andy Rooney must certainly be the oldest person to have a regular spot on television. The show's reporters do tend toward the venerable rather than the vivacious.

Times do change, as the stopwatch ticks. Nowadays a public figure with a case to make might well make it on a late-night comedy show, which some may even take as a kind of progress.

Yet "60 Minutes" remains a place, perhaps the preeminent place on television, to be taken seriously, and to signal the world that you want to be taken seriously. It is cut like a classic suit, and is wearing well.

--

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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