When News Happened, Don Hewitt Was There

Don Hewitt i

Don Hewitt (bottom right), executive producer of 60 Minutes, discusses upcoming editions of the broadcast with co-editors Morley Safer, Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, circa 1970s. Authenticated News/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Authenticated News/Getty Images
Don Hewitt

Don Hewitt (bottom right), executive producer of 60 Minutes, discusses upcoming editions of the broadcast with co-editors Morley Safer, Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, circa 1970s.

Authenticated News/Getty Images

Don Hewitt, who died on Wed. at age 86, didn't invent the TV newsmagazine, but he sure invented the most successful and durable one. He created 60 Minutes in 1968 — 41 years ago — and, like the signature stopwatch that has opened every hour since the beginning, it's still ticking. In fact, this Sunday's 60 Minutes will be devoted entirely to Hewitt. And the problem won't be filling the hour, but narrowing it down to one.

On camera, there are two figures in TV news who rise above all others: Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Murrow invented and set the standards for television news at CBS, and Cronkite exemplified them in the 1960s and beyond. Off camera, Hewitt worked with them both. Not only worked with them, but predated them — and outlasted them. His career, like his impact on television, is unparalleled.

Start with 60 Minutes, his most enduring legacy. The show has ranked in TV's Top 10 in several different decades, and has ranked a handful of times as television's most popular show. No other newsmagazine has achieved a Number One ranking for the season even once. And the show's popularity, while definitely skewing older in audience appeal, isn't exactly in the past. Last week's installment, featuring the first post-prison TV interview with Michael Vick, was the second most popular program of the week.

That's an amazing track record for a show that premiered in 1968. But Hewitt, who created 60 Minutes, has a track record that is even more amazing. It took 10 years for 60 Minutes to finish in TV's Top 10 — and by the time it did that, in 1978, Hewitt already had been at CBS News for 30 years. And he'd stay there for another 25 years, until he retired from 60 Minutes in 2003.

Hewitt is like the Forrest Gump, or the Zelig, of TV news. Whenever something important happened, no matter what year, Hewitt was likely to be there. When CBS began presenting a nightly newscast in 1948, with Douglas Edwards as the newsman, Hewitt was an associate director, and soon became the program's director. And in 1951, when Murrow made a wary but brilliant transition from radio to television, in 1951's landmark CBS newsmagazine See It Now, Hewitt was by his side. Literally. The live program was set in the control room at Studio 41, and Hewitt was directing while on camera — as Murrow explained at the start of the very first show.

And at that point, Hewitt was just getting started. In 1952, he directed TV coverage of the national political conventions. In 1956, when the luxury liner the Andrea Dorea sank at sea, and CBS dispatched a helicopter to film the only TV footage of it sinking, Hewitt was manning the camera. In 1960, Hewitt was the director for the unprecedented, and politically crucial, televised presidential campaign debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. In 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, Hewitt directed the massive, nonstop days of coverage for CBS — the coverage that made Cronkite an instant TV icon. And so on, up to and including presenting Bill and Hillary Clinton's campaign-saving 1992 appearance on 60 Minutes. Arguably, Hewitt had a hand in electing JFK in 1960 and Clinton 32 years later — and Hewitt wasn't through yet.

But it's not just the durability, or the impact, that impresses me — though both of those do impress me. More that anything else, what's most incredible about Hewitt's accomplishments is the quality. Almost everything he directed, everything he touched, was impressive, and presented with a clear respect for the audience. When Cronkite died earlier this summer, most analysts expressed regret that we'll never see his likes again in TV news. Sad to say, but the same thing is true of Hewitt.

David Bianculli writes for TVWorthWatching.com, and teaches television and film at Rowan University.

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