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Don Hewitt’s Perspective

May 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

DON HEWITT: Perfect, perfect.


DON HEWITT: Perfect.

ED BRADLEY: All right?

DON HEWITT: Does he have the word “one in ten” in there? See if you got enough.

TERENCE SMITH: Don Hewitt has been making 60 Minutes tick for 36 years.

DON HEWITT: Right, right.

TERENCE SMITH: He is the creator, driving force and only executive producer of the longest-running prime-time television show, and the most successful TV news magazine of all time.

ANCHOR: Good evening. This is 60 Minutes.

TERENCE SMITH: The show’s statistics are staggering: 23 consecutive years among the top ten highest- rated broadcasts, five of them as number one; 75 Emmy awards; a weekly audience that has approached 30 million people. But now, after more than 1,600 broadcasts, he is stepping down at the end of the month. At 81, he’s moving to a new office with a new title.

DON HEWITT: Executive Producer, CBS News. And what that means, I’m not sure, but I like it.

TERENCE SMITH: When you look at this business, I’m not just talking about 60 Minutes, but the business of television news, what do you see?

DON HEWITT: I happen to believe that both you guys and Brokaw and Jennings and Rather do very, very capable jobs every night. I am horrified that everybody else seems to be doing nothing other than using their news to promote reality television, quiz shows. I find that shocking. But, hell, come on, it’s their network. If that’s what they want, I’m in no position to do anything about it, except to make sure that they don’t use 60 Minutes for that.

TERENCE SMITH: If television news today is less than what it once was and less than what it should be, why? Is it economic pressure?

DON HEWITT: Yes, yes. Many, many years ago I said to these guys, “you’re going to price yourself out of business.” You can’t cover every skirmish on every battlefield everywhere in the world. You can’t cover every river that’s overflowed its banks and stay in business. It costs too much. That’s why today there are no foreign bureaus. Nobody covers foreign news. They sit in London and they get feeds from other sources. They put their own narration on somebody else’s pictures. They weren’t there. They don’t know really what happened.

TERENCE SMITH: Some would argue that you had a lot to do with pricing, running up the price of television news by paying correspondents big salaries and making them into celebrity journalists.

DON HEWITT: That’s true, and we all made a lot of money. Because this broadcast … this broadcast profit was $2 billion profit to CBS during the 23 years or so that we were in the top ten.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it other things, beyond economic pressure, when you look at the television news? Is it the phenomenon of the 24-hour cable news and the recycling of the product? I mean, is that … what’s been the impact of that?

DON HEWITT: You deal with something called attention span. And the attention span is getting less and less, mostly because the old days of Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, all of America waited for 7 o’clock every night to find out what happened. There’s not a soul in America who doesn’t know what happened by 7 o’clock at night.

I don’t think it’s as much the all-news cable channels as it is all-news radio. America lives in its automobiles. Its automobile is where you learn what happened in the world. There’s the car radio. So I don’t think anybody is waiting for Dan Rather, Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw or you guys to find out what happened today. There’s not a dime’s bit of difference in the philosophy of ABC News, NBC News and CBS News. They all try to play it down the middle. They’re all saying the exact same thing, and there are three different voices saying it. And it always struck me as a terrible waste of type … it isn’t that it’s going to kill competition, because they don’t compete. They do the same stories.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s been the impact on television news of conglomeration, if we make up a word, and ownership by very large corporations, as opposed to the more individual ownership? Do these organizations today have a different set of priorities than a Bill Paley did?

DON HEWITT: Well, of course, or David Sarnoff or Leonard Goldenson. They owned their companies. They were king of the hill. All of these companies, and this is not just in broadcasting, they’re beholden to stockholders. There are shareholders out there who want to know, “why is my stock not performing as well?” I found out a long time ago, the answer to being a success in broadcasting is to do something for their pocketbook as well as their soul. And as long as you take care of their pocketbook and you take care of their soul…

TERENCE SMITH: The owner’s pocketbook?

DON HEWITT: …You are golden. They don’t touch you. They didn’t touch it … now they’re doing … they’re making some changes now. I’m not even sure I know why, but I’m not going to bemoan it. I’ve had too great a life. I can sit around and say, “What are they doing to me?” I could complain. But I’m not going to. I’ve got another idea I can’t tell you about, but I got an idea that I think is maybe as good as the 60 Minutes idea. And I think it’s … it’s the logical extension of 60 Minutes. But I can’t talk about it yet, but when we’re ready, I’ll come and tell you about it.

PRODUCER: Will you take camera two, please, Roger.

TERENCE SMITH: Hewitt established his reputation in 1960, when he produced the first televised presidential debate.

DON HEWITT: I get a lot of credit for being the producer and director of the first Nixon/Kennedy debate. And in hindsight, I think I should get the blame, not the credit. That’s the night that politicians looked at us and said, “hey, those guys are the only way to run for office.” And we looked at them and said…

TERENCE SMITH: The television guys?

DON HEWITT: Television guys. And we looked at them and said, “those guys are a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.” Now, from that day on, nobody could even contemplate running for office in the greatest democracy on earth unless you got money to buy television time. And you cannot get money to buy television time unless you’re doing something with a lobbyist you shouldn’t be doing.

TERENCE SMITH: You’ve been at this for 56 years, this business of television news. Where do you think it’s going to go in the next, say, five, ten or 15 years? What’s going to change?

DON HEWITT: Well, first of all, I don’t think the networks can go on spending the kind of money they spend on their news broadcasts because there are fewer and fewer people now … they were once the end-all and be-all of television. Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Edward R. Murrow. It was 60 Minutes, you know, top ten, 23 years. It doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t think you can go on with 800 channels and make the kind of money to support the kind of news operations we want to do. I’m not sure that CNN and Fox and the rest of them can go on supporting that kind of thing.

TERENCE SMITH: And 60 Minutes in five, ten or 15 years?

DON HEWITT: If this broadcast continues to be what I set out to be, it will still be here. What I said when I started this broadcast is, everybody’s doing a pretty good job of covering the news of the day. I don’t want to compete with that. I want to do a show about news of the times we live in. I’m not interested in rescripting and reproducing the same stories that you can see everywhere else.

I want to go out and find parts of our world. And one of the things I learned more than anything: You know who I compete with? I don’t compete with ABC or NBC or Dateline or 20/20, I compete with that little remote that everybody has in his hand. That’s what everybody in television … these guys don’t know it. You know that remote is like a gun? Bang, you’re dead. You sit there at night, and you kill people left and right. The minute they reach for the remote, you’re dead. And that’s the end-all and be-all of 60 Minutes. Don’t ever let them look around and find out where’s the remote.

TERENCE SMITH: So your forecast is 60 Minutes will be here and Don Hewitt will be one floor down spinning off ideas?

DON HEWITT: I would hope so. And that’s what I think might happen, but who knows? I’m going to be 83 years old. I’m still happy to be alive and still going strong. You know, I’ll take anything, but that’s what I think is going to happen.

TERENCE SMITH: Don Hewitt, thanks so much.