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`60 Minutes' creator Hewitt disappointed in glut of entertainment-based imitators.

The 21st Annual Frank E. Gannett Lecture was delivered by "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Don Hewitt at The Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York on Dec. 10, 1998. On these two pages are edited excerpts from Hewitt's remarks.

The sad fact of life today is that the economics of television have driven the networks out of the entertainment business, which they used to be very serious about and did very well, and into the news business, which they're not very serious about and don't do very well.

I'm talking about all those so-called newsmagazines that followed in the wake of "60 Minutes" -- newsmagazines the networks use as filler simply because they've got no alternative.

"60 Minutes" showed [executives] that a television newsmagazine can be worthwhile and profitable at the same time. The trouble is, they ignored the first half of that equation and zeroed in on the second.

Soap operas that used to be the stuff of afternoon television now run at night under the guise of newsmagazines. And if it keeps going the way it's been going, a grand and glorious American institution -- broadcast journalism, as America knew it, relished it and depended on it [for decades] -- could all but vanish by the end of the century.

I would like to believe that the [networks'] founding fathers, were they still around, would have stood fast on what was, for them, an article of faith: News is news and entertainment is entertainment, and crossing the line between them is often dishonest and always bad broadcasting. What worries me and should worry everybody is not that the line is crossed and crisscrossed repeatedly, but that nobody gives a damn that it is.

How [did this all happen]? I think the floodgates were opened when the three networks, which used to have something called standards and practices, allowed their owned-and-operated stations to dig down in the mud and come up with reality-based afternoon syndicated talk shows that are little more than cesspools overflowing into America's living rooms -- and I'm not talking about Oprah Winfrey.

Maybe it's time to put the "E" back in entertainment where it belongs and the "N" back in news where it belongs.

How did "60 Minutes" do it -- stay true to its roots and last this long at the top of the heap? Some people say it's our protected time slot. That certainly helped launch us, but staying on top of the heap once we were launched came from knowing who we were and what we were and what was expected of us by [CBS Chairman] Bill Paley, who ... was part P.T. Barnum and part Henry Luce.

What we started out to do 30 years ago was produce a television journal that would be the broadcast counterpart of Life and Look magazines. And if there's anything we pride ourselves on more than ... staying in the top 10 [in the ratings] for more than 20 years, it's that never once did we pay the least bit of attention to a "sweeps week" and never once did we do anything to attract a rating. Ratings sought us. We never sought them. I guess you could say that ratings, like goodness and mercy, have followed us all the days of our lives.

When "60 Minutes" went on the air, a marvelous man named Bill Leonard gave [the program] its marching orders: "Make us proud," he said.

That could be the last time anyone in television ever said to anyone else in television, "Make us proud." Because he said "Make us proud" and not "Make us money," we made [CBS] a bundle. Because he said "Make us proud" instead of "Get us ratings," we got him ratings -- the best ratings anyone ever saw for a news broadcast and probably ever will again.

Hewitt suggests pool coverage for routine news

If it's too expensive for a network to be what it once was, why not an associated television a la The Associated Press? Keep the big bucks for the [big-name reporters and anchors]. Keep a cadre of top producers and camera crews and tape editors to work with them, but leave the routine news stories to what would, in effect, be a wire service.

Each network doesn't have to have its own man or woman on the scene at every river that overflows its banks, every border where there's a skirmish, every town up and down the coast battening down for a hurricane. If the same wire service reporter showed up on [all three network newscasts], who'd know? If you can "pool" the coverage of a presidential news conference, why can't you "pool" the coverage of an earthquake and make your mark as a top-flight news organization with the kind of "savvy" you bring to stories that require "savvy" and leave the routine ones to good camera work and good bread-and-butter reporting?

The fact that the cameras covering a presidential news conference don't belong exclusively to one network makes no difference in how each network reports that news conference.

* For the complete speech text, visit free/The Freedom Forum online at www.freedomforum.org.

For more information, contact Susan Bennett at The Freedom Forum. Tel: 703/284-3765 E-mail: sbennett@freedom.org The Freedom Forum, 1101 Wilson Bldv, Arlington, VA 22209 E-mail: news@freedomforum.org Internet: www.freedomforum.org
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Author:Hewitt, Don
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:888
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