CBS’ “60 Minutes,” the newsmagazine that can credit consistency for much of its success as it enters its 50th anniversary year, is about to see a major change with the addition of Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey will debut Sept. 24, reporting on a story about America’s political divisions.
It’s a testament to the power of the Sunday-night newsmagazine that it seeks to absorb one of television’s biggest stars into its fabric instead of the other way around. One of the medium’s best-known celebrity interviewers will do some, but will largely work against type in reporting stories, said Jeff Fager, the show’s executive producer.
“She wants to do stories with impact,” he said. “She’s driven by that and so are we. That’s part of why this is such a good fit for her.”
Many of the names that made “60 Minutes” great — Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Don Hewitt — are gone now. But the stopwatch keeps ticking every Sunday at 7 p.m. While everything in media seems to have changed around it, the show’s mix of investigations, news-making interviews, esoteric and entertaining features timed to the length of founding executive producer Hewitt’s attention span remains remarkably unchanged.
“It’s a miracle,” correspondent Lesley Stahl said.
When she joined in 1991, Hewitt told Stahl that he wanted correspondents to be like actors in a repertory troupe who could play all the roles, and that’s still the philosophy she uses to plan stories she pursues.
Gone, too, are the volatile days of throwing coffee cups, shouting matches and feuds, of Wallace peeking at colleagues’ notebooks to steal stories. But it’s still keenly competitive. Newcomer Bill Whitaker told Fager he dreamed of screening a story that his bosses found so perfect it merited no changes. Fager leaned in and told him, “that’s not going to happen.”
There’s a different pressure from the daily deadlines of the evening news, Whitaker said. At “60 Minutes,” correspondents have time, talented producers and travel budgets. So they’d better deliver.
“Everyone is trying to find an original story, something that breaks news or helps people to understand a big story,” Fager said. “That’s what we do. New people up here realize that’s a higher bar than is set anywhere else.”
“People think it’s cutthroat,” he said. “It’s not like that, the way our image would suggest. But it’s a tough place to succeed. Part of how you’re judged is how original your reporting is, and how well you cover a big story.”
Scott Pelley, Stahl, Steve Kroft, Whitaker and Anderson Cooper make up the show’s core. Charlie Rose, Winfrey, Sharyn Alfonsi, Lara Logan, David Martin, Norah O’Donnell and Jon Wertheim are among the contributors who also do stories.
“There are a lot of people who are contributors who have other jobs, and that has changed the feel of the place,” Kroft said. “I don’t think the show has changed very much on the air.”
Fager, who just completed a book on the show to mark the anniversary, talks now about how hard it was to replace Hewitt 15 years ago. Colleagues say his status as an insider at CBS News and “60 Minutes” helped him, along with the absence of an ego-driven need to make changes for change’s sake.
His biggest push has been to make the show more on the news. Interviewing former presidential adviser Steve Bannon this past Sunday illustrates the point, and Fager pushed out excerpts of the interview for a few days in advance to make headlines and attract attention. Comments Bannon made about the James Comey firing were posted on the “60 Minutes Overtime” website, which delivers outtakes from the show’s segments, and became so newsworthy Monday that they arguably should have been used in the original piece.
The show would often ignore big breaking-news stories in the past, figuring they were told elsewhere. Fager likes to find some element that hasn’t received much attention but can help a viewer better understand the event, citing Kroft’s reporting on the financial crisis a decade ago.
“The quality of the show has not dropped off,” Kroft said. “We’ve had good seasons and bad seasons all during the 30 years I’ve been here. I think the show is more timely than it used to be.”
Producers watch the ratings, but refuse to test audience preferences with polls.
“It’s really risky to do what we do,” Fager said. “It goes against everything the professionals in news organizations believe, that you have to pander, that you have to look for stories that they’re going to want, as opposed to doing stories that are important and figuring out how to do it well.”
“60 Minutes” has made high-profile mistakes; the reliance on a bad source in Logan’s 2014 Benghazi story was a major blemish. If the show has a weakness, it is that story length can simplify some stories too much, said Tom Bettag, a longtime television news producer who now teaches at the University of Maryland.
Yet the storytelling and writing put the show far ahead of the competition. Unlike newsmagazines like “Dateline NBC” and ABC’s “20/20” that have chased after trends and lost their identity, “what `60 Minutes’ did was stay consistent to its brand, to its vision, year in and year out,” he said.
“60 Minutes” has a rich tradition of principals who hold on to their jobs well past retirement age. The 72-year-old Kroft, who has cut back on stories and recently signed a two-year contract, doesn’t want to be one of them. Stahl, 75, said she wants to continue as long as she can do the job. She went to Fager a few years ago and said she didn’t want to fade on television and would tell him if she could sense herself slipping.
“He looked at me and said, ‘No, you won’t. Nobody ever does that.’ And he very kindly offered to do it for me,” she said with a laugh.