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THE NEWS BIZ

CBS' '60 Minutes': Changing with the times

As the news show begins its 42nd season (the first since the passing of creator Don Hewitt), it's hot again. They're still using the same recipe, but now there are more cooks in the kitchen.

September 27, 2009|Matea Gold

NEW YORK — Change creeps slowly through the ninth-floor newsroom of the West 57th Street high-rise that houses "60 Minutes," CBS' storied Sunday evening newsmagazine. For decades, the office assignments on Correspondent's Row, a bank of glass-walled rooms facing the Hudson River, were sacrosanct, with the biggest space next to the executive producer belonging to Mike Wallace.

But Wallace's office has been largely empty since the 91-year-old became correspondent emeritus three years ago. Last month, executive producer Jeff Fager quietly decided that it was time for Steve Kroft, the longest serving of the full-time correspondents, to inherit the space.

"This is hallowed ground," said Kroft on a recent afternoon, still surrounded by boxes, the walls empty save for a row of gleaming Emmys lining a high shelf.

What may seem like minor office shuffling is freighted with the symbolism of a generational shift at "60 Minutes," which begins its 42nd season tonight. While Fager stresses that the broadcast is an ensemble effort, he acknowledged that Kroft, a 64-year-old, squared-jawed reporter who got his start sending dispatches from Vietnam, emerged in the last year as the face of the program, in part because of his reports on the financial crisis and his much-watched interviews with candidate and President Obama. Steve Kroft"I don't think anyone can tell a story better," Fager said.

Kroft's rising profile is not the only change on the broadcast, the most-watched news program on TV and arguably the only one that still commands a mass audience on a regular basis. For all of its endurance, "60 Minutes" has quietly entered a transitional period. This will be the first season without creator Don Hewitt, who passed away last month at age 86 and had remained a lively presence in the newsroom, even after his retirement in 2004.

And the ranks of correspondents have grown with a batch of younger contributors, bringing the number of reporters to 10 -- almost the size of a football team. The influx troubles the program's veterans, who fret that the program's identity is being blurred.

"I think that the public gets a little confused sometimes," said correspondent , sitting in her tidy office down the hall from Kroft.

That's only amped up the famously intense competition among the staff. "We are all trying to find the most compelling stories on Earth, and I think that's something that drives the energy of the broadcast," said correspondent Scott Pelley.

The addition of new contributors is an acknowledgment that there's a limit to "60 Minutes' " reach. For the last decade, the median age of viewers has hovered around 60. (That's a year younger than that of the three evening newscasts, but several years older than other network newsmagazines, according to Nielsen.) One of the show's most recognizable figures is 91-year-old essayist Andy Rooney.

"The cultivation of this new cast of characters is an attempt to lure a younger audience," said Richard Campbell, director of Miami University's journalism program and the author of "60 Minutes and the News: A Mythology for Middle America." The risk, he added, is a dilution of the brand once emblematized by the likes of Wallace and the late Ed Bradley.

The show has long been CBS News' most prestigious property, and last season it managed a rare feat, reversing a nearly decade-long trend of ratings declines. The audience grew to an average of 14.3 million people, up 10% from the year before and the biggest in seven years. The increase came as most other newscasts lost audience, including both "CBS Evening News" and ABC's "World News." Viewers came not only for Kroft's Obama interviews but Katie Couric's exclusive with Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger and Pelley's sit-down with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

The boost in ratings was particularly sweet for a program that has stayed true to the format that Hewitt hit on four decades ago: a weekly menu of meaty interviews, exhaustive investigative pieces and whimsical features. One of the few big changes was last season's conversion to high definition. In a modern flourish, producers also added a boom camera in the studio that zooms in on the correspondents as they introduce their pieces, seated on a stool instead of a chair. "Whatever the ethos of this broadcast was, it still is, and I think that's the most important thing," said 77-year-old correspondent Morley Safer, who joined the program in 1970, puffing on a cigarette behind his desk.

Competitors such as NBC's "Dateline" and ABC's "20/20," originally modeled after "60 Minutes," now largely pursue crime stories and celebrity interviews. (ABC recently trumpeted Barbara Walters' sit-down with La Toya Jackson.) They average about half the audience of "60 Minutes."

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