January 13, 1999
Don Hewitt, the executive producer of CBS' "60 Minutes", is the man who started the news magazine genre 30 years ago. He recently spoke with Terence Smith about the rise of news magazines, the decline of prime time entertainment and news as public service. The following are extended excerpts from the interview.
TERENCE SMITH: There are now news magazines almost every night of the week, 5 nights a week, straight across, almost like a strip on different networks, a growth from when really you were the one. What's going on here?
DON HEWITT: Well, are they news magazines? I don't know that. I think that they're now using their news magazines to play a game that I call "Sweeps Week Roulette." It's as if a newspaper decided to hold all its best stories for a certain period when they took circulation figures.
TERENCE SMITH: Like the Christmas ad season or something like that.
DON HEWITT: Yeah, that's exactly right.
TERENCE SMITH: But in this case it's the sweeps.
DON HEWITT: But here's really what's going on. In large part, the networks have gone out of the entertainment business, which they were once very serious about and did very well, into the news business that they're not serious about and they don't do very well. And last summer, when all these sort of ersatz news magazines were all doing rather well and I was asked why that was, I said probably for the same reason that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire are hitting home runs. Nobody is throwing any stuff at them. And the problem is--
TERENCE SMITH: No competition.
DON HEWITT: No competition. The problem is that instead of trying to make news more entertaining, I don't know why it's never dawned on the networks to try to make entertainment more entertaining, but they're bankrupt. Behind every one of those new news magazines, there's a failed sitcom. The rise of a Jane Pauley is because of the demise of a Mary Tyler Moore. Once we had them both. We had Jane Pauley in the morning, we had Mary Tyler Moore in the evening, and it was a better television menu. We once had Barbara Walters and Lucille Ball. I don't think that "20/20" three times a week is a substitute for "I Love Lucy" once a week. Television was once this marvelous cornucopia of great entertainment and worthwhile news. It was "Mash" and "All in the Family" and "Have Gun Will Travel" and "Studio One," and it was a pretty good entertainment medium, and it was a pretty good news medium.
Somewhere along the line, they lost it in entertainment. There are no more Jackie Gleasons. There are no more Lucille Balls. There are some Jim Carreys. There is Seinfeld, but all of a sudden, Seinfeld left, and it was like the end of television. It's as if when Charlie Chaplin died, they decided to close down Hollywood. There was nothing in the wings waiting to go on, and this is the real problem. There is no real compulsion for the networks to find entertainers because they keep throwing these news shows into these holes in their schedule. Therefore, they're not looking for another Jackie Gleason or another Lucille Ball because they keep throwing news magazines in….
TERENCE SMITH: Picking up on something you said just a moment ago, you said the networks used to be very serious about entertainment, but not about news. What do you mean? …
DON HEWITT: They're not serious about news. News is filler. News is to plug the holes in the schedule. The news division of the three networks are not charged with covering news. They're charged with filling time. The name of the game is fill time, and you look at--look, go back a year. What was ABC's big exclusive a year ago? Pol Pot coming out of the jungle? No. Ellen Degeneres coming out of the closet, and they couldn't have cared less whether she came out of the closet or stayed in the closet, as long as she did it during Sweeps Week. That's all anybody cared about. Now, that's not a rap at ABC. That would have happened at CBS or NBC. So it's all about Sweeps Week. What are you going to do for Sweeps Week? You know, what are you doing for Christmas? What are you doing for Thanksgiving? ...
TERENCE SMITH: They--in a sense, this is all your fault because--
DON HEWITT: Absolutely. Absolutely. We were the first ones that made news profitable. This broadcast has made--I don't know the exact figure, but it's north of a billion and a half, and it's a little bit south of 2 billion on 30 years….
TERENCE SMITH: Well, the news business has become big business, and you can make big money now.
DON HEWITT: Wait, wait, wait. Make big money now. Some of the biggest fortunes in America were made selling news. The Hearsts, the Luces, the Grahams, the Sulzbergers, the whole L.A. Times--
TERENCE SMITH: The Chandlers, the Binghams.
DON HEWITT: --the Chandlers, the Binghams, some of the biggest fortunes in America were made selling news. However, even the heirs who are still making big money, I don't think have turned it into entertainment, and I still think they have better standards. There was a time when ABC News, NBC News, and CBS News could hold its own with the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Career Journal. I'm not sure that's true anymore.
I think the three leading newscasts are pretty good. I think Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings are good. I think Koppel is terrific at 11 o'clock. I think the Sunday "Meet the Press," "This Week," and "Face the Nation" are still first-rate broadcasts. I would like to believe that "60 Minutes" is about more than the mugger, the maimer, and the misfit of the week, but when you leave that enclave of broadcasts that I think still do justice to what we were once all about, it is difficult to find any decent reason for a lot of these broadcasts being on the air except, as I said, to fill time.
|The Growth of News Magazines.|
TERENCE SMITH: Let's look at that strip of all the news magazines that's now practically across the schedule. What they are doing, is it journalism? Is it entertainment? Is it news? Give it a label.
DON HEWITT: Well, I'm not sure I can give it a label. I think it's a new animal. I think we create a new animal, but adhere to--it's a miracle to me. I don't understand it. By adhering to everything we knew to be right and proper about broadcast journalism, we were the number-one broadcast in America, once in the '70s, once in the '80s, twice in the '90s, been in the top 10 for 21 years. I am not sure I understand that, how that happens, but, obviously, they decided to go a different way. I don't know that you can put a label on it. I don't know what it is exactly. Is People magazine news? I don't know. I mean, maybe that is the new news, but--and maybe there is only room for one "60 Minutes." That's also possible.
TERENCE SMITH: People call it the "new news." They call it "infotainment." They certainly don't generally call it "straight news."
DON HEWITT: No.
TERENCE SMITH: And I'm thinking now of the news magazines that are producing night after night, pieces about some wrenching individual human story, some misidentified baby that has perhaps some emotion in it, but absolutely no news content to the larger public.
DON HEWITT: It's--the soap operas have moved upstairs to the nighttime.
TERENCE SMITH: To the news division.
DON HEWITT: That's exactly right. Is it a phase? It's a phase only if these guys don't find the next Jackie Gleason, the next Lucille Ball, the next Alan Alda. Failing that, it may not be a phase. It may be here to stay.
TERENCE SMITH: Because, among other things, it's cheaper to produce.
DON HEWITT: But I'm not sure. I'm not sure that that's the deciding factor. NBC would have gone for Seinfeld for any price if he'd have stayed. So I don't think it's just a matter of money. I think it's a matter of being bankrupt for entertainment. It's not cheap anymore. This is a very expensive broadcast…. It may be less expensive than trying to do a "Jurassic Park," but I'm not sure that if they went out--if tomorrow they found another Jim Carrey, they might not spring for the money. I mean, these guys sprang for how many billions to get football back for one reason only, because the demographics of this network were--left a lot to be desired to these guys, which is something I'm not sure I understand.
I mean, I don't understand what this mania is to attract youth, and they're not attracting youth because they're talking down to these kids. And these kids--these kids are going up market with computers. They didn't go down market, and by going down market, I'm not sure you reach it, but I think had they found--if they found the right entertainers, I think you'd find a lot of these news magazines would disappear….
TERENCE SMITH: When you look at these news magazines, are they in fact pitching for a certain demographic appeal?
DON HEWITT: Sure. Oh, yeah. Sure.
TERENCE SMITH: Give me an example.
DON HEWITT: Well, I don't--I can't give you the exact example, but by making news--by hyping news and making it more--as you said, the story of the put-upon young lady who could have been in a soap opera if she were an actress, but she's a real person. So she turns up on a news magazine, but you can't just fault them….
TERENCE SMITH: When you look at your competition the others, what percentage of them in your opinion really is news, and what percentage is fluff?
DON HEWITT: Well, let me say again that the real coverage of news and television, the three evening newscasts, Koppel, the Sunday shows, there is a solid--I find that very solid and very interesting.
TERENCE SMITH: I'm talking about the news magazines.
DON HEWITT: The news magazines. There is a lot of fluff. Now, whether they would describe it as fluff is problematical. I'm not sure that what you and I see as fluff, they see as fluff. Are they fooling themselves, or are they actually--do they actually believe that a lot of that stuff has some journalistic value? Hard to know....
TERENCE SMITH: Let me recall a quaint phrase for you, and tell me if it strikes your ears, "public service."
DON HEWITT: Well, see, I don't really--I think--you know, I think maybe your electric company is in the public service business and your--and your civil servants. I've never really believed journalists were in the public service business. I mean, there are people who say these are stories you should do because they're going to help the State or the world and stuff. I don't believe that. We're in the business of covering stories that we think are interesting to people. I don't have any ax to grind. I'm not a public servant. If I were a public servant, I'd be starving to death. We're all in a--we live in a capitalist society. None of us have decided to move out and move to Armenia.
TERENCE SMITH: You went to work for a network many years ago that had a very large entertainment component, but it had an important news component to meet what it felt was a public obligation if, to do nothing else, to preserve its license to broadcast.
DON HEWITT: You put your finger on it. There was an FCC that demanded a certain amount of public service in return for the use of the air waves.
TERENCE SMITH: And now?
DON HEWITT: There's no FCC of any sort…. So there's nobody holding your feet to the fire.
TERENCE SMITH: And therefore?
DON HEWITT: And therefore, what happened was the networks prayed for the day when they would get out from the FCC, and that day came. And not only does nobody regulate anything, everybody bumps into everybody else and all these transgressions that we've been talking about occurred the day that the FCC no longer sat as a watchdog over television, which the television people love because they don't want any FCC looking over their shoulder.
Is it good or bad? I don't know. I think the marketplace is more of a determining factor here than anything else, and I think the marketplace has said that we can't afford to get into the entertainment business the way Hollywood is in the entertainment business where they pay--you know, they'll pay Demi Moore the $20 million a movie and they've got Tom Cruise for God knows what and Bruce Willis. So there's not in that game. They can't pay the De Niros, the Pacinos. So they say we have to fill up the schedule, and we own these news divisions and we'll use them. And we became part of the entertainment business. It's not a happy development. It's tough to hold onto your soul in this climate, but it's changed. Sure, it's changed…
TERENCE SMITH: When they turn on their television today and they see all these news shows, particularly in prime time, should they believe what they see?
DON HEWITT: Probably yes because I don't think they flirt with the truth that much. You know, it's--
TERENCE SMITH: It's just around the edges.
DON HEWITT: I'll tell you a strange thing. When I was growing up in New York, there was the News, the Mirror, the Post, P.M., the Journal, the American, the Herald Tribune, the Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, the Bronx Home News. Every one of those newspapers, but three, are dead. New Yorkers today know more about New York's theaters, New York City Hall, how New York works, about New York's neighborhoods than they did when all those newspapers were alive. That's a dismaying fact to me. I don't like to think about that.
TERENCE SMITH: But from fewer sources.
DON HEWITT: From fewer sources, but they do know more about their city than they did when there were three times as many newspapers here. So how bad can it all be?