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Don Hewitt On His '60 Minutes' Of Fame

For more than 50 years, Don Hewitt has been a part of the best in television news. He has collaborated with Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace and Dan Rather. In 1968, he created 60 Minutes for CBS. He is still the program's executive producer, and 60 Minutes is still one of the most popular programs on TV.

Hewitt has written a book about his long career. It's called Tell Me a Story: 50 Years and 60 Minutes on Television. The 78-year-old producer says he didn't expect 60 Minutes to be such a success.

"When we went on the air in '68, Bob, I thought we were about 13 weeks and out," Hewitt tells NPR's Bob Edwards. "No one was more surprised than I was that we caught on, and no one is more surprised than I am that we're still there."

Bob Edwards: So how did you do that?

Don Hewitt: By telling stories, which no one else did, and by realizing something that people in television never seem to know, that it is your ear more than your eye that keeps you at a television set. 60 Minutes is a show that works as well on radio as it does on television, and the continuity of what you hear is what people tune in for.

Well, perhaps no one would have been surprised, given the fact that you have been in place at so many strategic moments in television news history, in CBS history, starting with launching the Evening News in 1948 with Douglas Edwards.

Right. And then it was sort of this charmed life. I couldn't believe I was living this life. You know, it was Queen Elizabeth's coronation and trips around the world with Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson. I couldn't believe it was all happening to me.

Well, in 1948, you were still inventing this thing. No one had done television news.

Oh, yeah. No, you know, we were doing it like you made it up as you went along. I remember when the first Sputnik went up, it was before there were computer graphics. The idea of a satellite orbiting the Earth was unbelievable. I mean, nobody could really believe it had happened. And so what we did is I went out and I got a black coat hanger and I stuck a white cloth golf ball on the end of it and hooked it up to a motor and superimposed it over a spinning globe, and by God, there was Sputnik.

Yeah, but you showed us how dramatic TV news could be when you got the footage of the Andrea Doria sinking.

Well, that was dumb luck. Doug Edwards and I were late on the story. We went up to a Coast Guard base in New England where they were flying reporters out over the scene of this ship that was about to sink. Doug Edwards is in the opening of an airplane in the door, pointing down watching this behemoth floating there underneath us. And I said to the pilot, "How long you think she'll stay afloat?" figuring he'd say, you know, "A week, a couple of days." He said, "Don't stop that camera. I think she's going down right about now." And by God, there was this ocean liner, and one minute it was there and the next minute it was gone. And it rolled over like a big dead elephant, and all the water came out of the swimming pools, and it was gone.

And I got back — we landed, and I called the office, they said, "Listen, I'm sorry you guys wasted all that time, because everybody's been on the air with pictures of the ship, and all we can do now is go back and get it maybe if it sinks." I said, "It already did, and we just got it." And, you know, those are the lucky things that happen in your life.

In the 1950s, Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow introduced See It Now. I think it's on the first broadcast where Murrow is showing you a shot of the Pacific Ocean and another of the Atlantic Ocean. This was a great novelty at the time that you could see two oceans at one time.

There was always this bit about it was always great substance in the early days and it's all fallen apart now and it's all fun and games and that it isn't as serious as it once was. Guys in my business, who sort of pooh-pooh the idea of ratings and money and everything else, forget that it was the great Edward R. Murrow who decided that See It Now, as great as it was, was not providing him with the kind of income he thought he deserved. And so he went off and did a show called Person To Person, in which he visited the homes of celebrities once a week. And a guy named John Horn, in the Herald Tribune, once characterized See It Now as the Sunday afternoon serious show and the Monday night, light, frothy showbiz-type show of Murrow's as "high Murrow" and "low Murrow." And I read it, and I said, "Oh, my God, that's the answer. You put high Murrow and low Murrow in the same broadcast, you've got a winner." And that's what 60 Minutes has been, high Murrow and low Murrow.

For instance, Harry Reasoner going to visit the set of Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman years and years after the movie was made to go reminisce about it is sort of low Murrow at its highest. You could look in Marilyn Monroe's closet if you were also willing to look in Robert Oppenheimer's laboratory. And if you put them together, you get a broadcast that has been in the top 10 for 23 years. Why it all happened, I don't know, but to coin a phrase, I don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

The first presidential debate, 1960, that was your show. It was the only debate that mattered.

And it wasn't a debate, it was a joint news conference. Bob, let me tell you something about that. I look back on that night, that's the night that ruined politics in America. That was the night that politicians and television eyed each other and realized how much they had to offer each other. They looked at us and said, "That's the only way to run for office." And we looked at them and said, "That's a bottomless pit of advertising, buddy." It's been great for both of us; it's been terrible for the country.

The whole makeup of television network news has drastically changed since those days, and I know it troubles you, and at one point, you inquired about buying CBS.

CBS was, at one point, selling off bits and pieces of the company, and it dawned on me, and I said, "Hey, if they're ever going to sell off the news, why don't we buy it?" I was watching at home one night, Dan Rather was in a hotel in Mexico City where he was covering an earthquake, they put a transmitter in the window, and he reached the world. And I said, "My God, that's all you need is one transmitter. You don't need a whole network. You can reach everybody in the world that way" — more or less what CNN discovered later on. Well, it didn't sit well with the people I worked for. They were outraged by even the idea that we would think about it.

I look back on my life now, Bob, and I think maybe the luckiest day of my life was the day they said no. Because I don't think I would want to sit around all day and worry about budgets. You know, the problem in television news today is that presidents of the three networks spend more time worrying about staying within budget than how to cover news. I think the time has come to pool the Evening News. Not the rest of it. Continue to do 60 Minutes, 20/20, Nightline and Face the Nation, Meet the Press — that's all great stuff. The Evening News is so expensive. Pool it as a great service to the American people, and use Rather, Brokaw and Jennings on it — two of them out reporting, one of them as anchor — so they're not there as the Ed Sullivan of the newscast.

One of those shows is going to die somewhere along the line. Instead of letting them die, somebody ought to figure out a way to make them better. And there are those who think I've lost my mind, and there are those who think maybe this is the future, that what I've proposed may not be the only way to make it better, but I can't think of a better way right now.

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