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Remembering ’60 Minutes’ Creator Don Hewitt

August 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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A remembrance of Don Hewitt, creator of the television magazine "60 Minutes," who died Wednesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, remembering the man who invented CBS’s “60 Minutes,” among other things. Don Hewitt died at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

He joined CBS in the early days of the TV industry, producing the first televised presidential debate between then-candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. “60 Minutes” came along in 1968 and, under Hewitt, won 73 Emmys and nine Peabody Awards.

When asked what “60 Minutes’” secret, what it was, Hewitt said simply, “It’s four words every child knows: Tell me a story.”

Hewitt talked to former NewsHour correspondent Terence Smith five years ago about the television news business. That interview came as Hewitt prepared to step down after 36 years as executive producer of “60 Minutes.”

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?

Concentrating on the big stories

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.

The big mistake we made was the three networks not getting together and having a wire service the way the newspapers had an A.P. and a U.P. They need to concentrate on the big stories and let the little ones be done by what in effect would be a wire service.

They've priced themselves out of business. That's why today there are no foreign bureaus. Nobody covers foreign news. They sit in London, and they get feeds from otcompher sources. They put their own narration on somebody else's pictures. They weren't there. They don't know really what happened. And it's economics. You can't support it.

You know what I would do? I'd get together. I'd have the three networks run as a service of broadcasting one network news show each night.

TERENCE SMITH: Don Hewitt is one of the most competitive people I know, and this is the most anti-competitive suggestion I've ever heard.

DON HEWITT: But there is no -- you see, there's a competition among, what, for want of a better word, liberal newspapers, conservative newspapers. You don't want to lose that.

But 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 time. It isn't that it's going to kill competition, because they don't compete. They do the same stories.

Don't let them find the remote

TERENCE SMITH: And "60 Minutes" in 5, 10, or 15 years?

DON HEWITT: If this broadcast continues to be what I set out to be, it'll 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.

And that's what "60 Minutes" does. It happened. It's part of our world. And it's almost like that old Roy Howard, you know, give light and the people will find their way. And I'm not interested in re-scripting and re-producing the same stories that you see everywhere else. I want to go out and find parts of our world.

And one of the things I learned more than anything, do you know what 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. You know that remote is like a gun. Bang, you're dead. Bang.

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?

JIM LEHRER: Don Hewitt was 86 years old. You can watch Terry Smith's complete profile of Hewitt on our Web site at newshour.pbs.org.