Banff – Don Hewitt: On ratings, Seinfeld and the devolution of the newsmagazine

Don Hewitt is not happy with the news....
June 1, 1998

Don Hewitt is not happy with the news.

The mugger, the maimer and the misfit of the week. The talk shows, ambulance chasers, the stories appealing to the rubbernecker in the human psyche, which fall into the television newsmagazine category, all conspire to irk the creator of the format.

‘Cesspool,’ says Hewitt. No small criticism, considering where it comes from.

The charming, suffer-no-fools creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes is himself prominent in the news: March 22 was his 50th anniversary at CBS, and it’s the 30th anniversary of his brainchild. The New York Times is scribbling furiously and hunting pictures of his career, which has spanned five decades and includes coverage of every major news event, from WWII, to the Kennedy assasination, to the True Confessions of Kathleen Willey.

Meanwhile a crew from pbs has just finished tailing him, filming Don Hewitt: 90 Minutes on 60 Minutes, an American Masters special, which will have aired May 16.

Hewitt has been awarded, among others, the Founders Emmy from the International Council of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences for creating the newsmagazine format and for his leadership role on 60 Minutes.

And, come this year’s Banff Television Festival, the Astral Award of Excellence will add to the hardware crowding the wall at his cbs office. With all the ceremony surrounding this year of anniversaries, Hewitt could be expected to be distracted. He’s not.

A voicemail message from his handler Kevin Tidesco responding to an interview request is as follows: ‘I’ve mentioned you to him. That means nothing. In a hour he will have forgotten. He’s doing something for the show right now and when he gets in that mode, nothing gets in the way. Good luck.’

Nor, when he gets on the phone, is he distracted from a hard line on the state of the newsmagazine. ‘For whatever good has come out of the newsmagazine, more evil has come than good.’ The reasons are not the cost of investigative journalism, audience fragmentation, or the `dumbing down’ of programs marketed to an international audience, he says. Rather it’s broadcasting’s adherence to a new God.

‘The prayer? Our Father who art in Chicago, Neilsen be thy name.’

Hewitt >> The History

At 75, Hewitt is in a perpetual rush, insatiable and unsatisfied unless there are a dozen irons in the fire. His whole life has been about chasing the world.

Starting as head copy boy of New York Herald Tribune in 1942, Hewitt was the youngest correspondent assigned to Eisenhower’s headquarters during WWII, and covered the North Atlantic, North Sea, D-Day and the South Pacific.

Then, in 1948, a friend at CBS called him at his $100 a week job, writing captions for Acme Newspictures, to come and work in television. ‘I said, `What-a-vision? You mean that little box with pictures people stare at in the the department store window? CBS doesn’t have that.’ He said the hell they don’t. I walked in and said, `My God. This is not only journalism, this is Hollywood.”

Hewitt and CBS have been together ever since. For 14 years, he was producer/director of CBS News. Later, he became executive producer of CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite (who won a Banff award in 1991). Hewitt was producer/director of Eyewitness to History, helmed the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, and is even credited with creating the term `anchorman’.

With all the media coverage, the irony is that if the founder of the broadcast newsmagazine were given the option between a profile on the cover of Time magazine and some tv send-up, he’d pick Time. As a kid, he wanted to be either Julian Marsh, the Broadway show producer, or the ‘blood-and-guts and hell-for-leather’ reporter Hildy Johnson. Don Hewitt loves print, and with 60 Minutes he has forged a place which combines the best of print and video. ‘Lucky,’ he says. ‘Really lucky.’

The Newsmag >> Poor Substitutes

According to Hewitt, the reason the newsmagazine has fallen from grace is directly related to the fact that Seinfeld is (or was, as it were) the only game in town.

‘Behind every tv newsmagazine is a failed sitcom. Where are the Lucille Balls, the Jackie Gleasons, the Carroll O’Connors? There used to be 50 real tv stars. Now there’s just Seinfeld, and the networks have all this space to fill. They’re not using their news divisions to cover news; they’re using their news divisions to fill time.’

The other half of the bugaboo is Neilsen and the parallel obsession with focus groups, something Hewitt has never used. ‘If they brought a focus group guy near my office, I’d throw him out the window.’

Having said that, 60 Minutes is not incognizant of ratings. The interview this spring with Willey, the former White House volunteer who claims President Clinton made sexual advances to her in 1993, was the week’s most watched show, drawing 60 Minutes’ highest rating in almost three years – a 19.4 rating (percent of tv households) and a 31 share (percentage of sets in use), compared to the season’s 14.1/24.

Hewitt took criticism for the titillation factor, particularly when an ad for Primary Colours followed the segment (he didn’t know). But, he points out, the story wasn’t just sex; the topic, depending on which of the thousands of news stories one paid attention to, was truth, impeachment, rumors and innuendo. The 60 Minutes piece tried to cut through the clutter of information. The ratings are the by-product, not the goal, says Hewitt.

He also points out that the measure of a story isn’t grounded in kudos from Neilsen. As far as investigative journalism goes, if the job is being done right, one ends up with stories like the one on Lenell Geter, one of Hewitt’s favorites reports in all 30 years of 60 Minutes.

Geter, a bright, charming, black engineer, was accused and convicted of robbing a fried chicken shop. After a series of phone calls to police from people who claimed he couldn’t have committed the crime, producers Susanne St. Pierre and Morley Safer travelled to the scene of the crime, where they uncovered more evidence of Geter’s innocence than his defense attorney had.

‘The best part was that they didn’t retry him,’ says Hewitt. ‘They went in and opened the jail door and let him out. It was satisfying.’

And, although these kinds of results may not be the primary aim of investigative journalism, Hewitt says the standards beg a definition. He’s not buying the excuse it’s too expensive. U.S. networks are fat for the most part, many cable channels included. It’s just the goal is more money and higher ratings. He thinks PBS’ Frontline is doing a good job, as are the anchored newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS, and Ted Koppel. But news programs that are content with less – that are happy just to make money – are an echo of the Dole story, according to Hewitt.

‘The Dole pineapple family were originally missionaries who set out to do good. They found pineapple, marketed it, and did well [financially]. Dateline is making money like it’s going out of style. But if they set out to do good, they’re doing well [financially].’

As for all this industry kvetching about fragmentation, about how it makes it necessary to do more tv with less, about the challenge of holding the audience’s attention when there are all these channel choices, there’s not much sympathy from Hewitt. The programming challenge is still the same, he says.

‘Avoiding `Hey, Mildred,” he explains. ‘You know, the middle of the show, a guy looks at his wife and says, `Hey, Mildred, do you know what they’re talking about?’ and she says no, so he flips to the basketball game. You never want to get to `Hey, Mildred.”

As for consideration of the international audience now that 60 Minutes is sold all over the world, Hewitt shrugs it off. His concerns lately revolve around a radio version of 60 Minutes broadcast in the U.S. He wonders if the meaning will still come across if there are no visuals to bolster the story – because it’s all about story – and he considers the international audience no different from the domestic one. If you build it, they will come, he figures, and the job, after 30 years, is still the same.

‘The answer is still four little words every kid knows: Tell me a story. A good broadcaster literally crooks their finger and says, `Come over here. I want to tell you something.’ If they stay, you’ve done it right.’

Debate Debate Debate…

Meanwhile, debate continues at CBS over whether a second hour of 60 Minutes will be added to the primetime schedule, and U.S. trades are already tagging 60 Minutes alum (and current executive producer of CBS Evening News with Dan Rather) Jeff Fager as the man to run it, should the show come to fruition.

See also:

Report for Banff – TV on the Rocks

Banff: Two in a Room Follow-up

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.