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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Sunday marks the start of the 42nd season for the CBS TV news magazine "60 Minutes." It remains an exception for commercial TV news, a top-rated show that often takes on serious topics.

NPR's David Folkenflik, looks at the secret of that success.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: "60 Minutes" usually prepares its stories months in advance. But that means preparing for the unknowable.

MICHAEL RADUTZKY: The CDC is sending go- teams to a couple of these spots...

FOLKENFLIK: Senior producer Michael Radutzky was recently making the case that "60 Minutes" should have two teams of journalists poised to fan out across the globe to cover the spread of the swine flu. It would be expensive, and these days in network news divisions every dollar counts, but executive producer Jeff Fager is on board.

JEFF FAGER: The CDC is jumping on - on American hotspots like that.

Unidentified Man #1: Right. We...

Unidentified Man #2: (unintelligible) to South America now.

FAGER: I think we should probably go to South America - now.

FOLKENFLIK: You hear it said a lot these days, that broadcast TV news is a dinosaur, soon to be extinct. Maybe so, but then "60 Minutes" is T-Rex, thundering along the landscape. Nielsen Media Research says it was the 10th highest rated TV show last season. Here's Jeff Fager.

FAGER: We had an enormous responsibility to fulfill our commitment to be there when important stories break and to report them in a way that I think we do uniquely, which is to dig down deeper and help people understand them.

FOLKENFLIK: The show drew an estimated 14 million viewers each Sunday night, that's two million more than the year before.

STEVE KROFT: I think the news just took over.

FOLKENFLIK: That's longtime correspondent Steve Kroft.

KROFT: How are you not going to do stories about a financial collapse? How are you not going to do a story about the first black presidential candidate and the most closely watched presidential campaign since 1960 probably? You have to do it, that's what everybody is interested in.

FOLKENFLIK: Along with Lesley Stahl, Kroft used to make up the youth movement. Now he's in his 60s. Mike Wallace has finally retired. Ed Bradley died. Morley Safer works part time. And Kroft swears he won't hang on forever.

KROFT: There used to be a very clear generational divide on this show among the correspondents who thought that rock 'n' roll was here to stay and rock 'n' roll was just a passing fad. Now it is slightly more complicated than that.

FOLKENFLIK: So Kroft, Safer and Stahl are joined by Scott Pelley, Bob Simon, and occasional contributors Lara Logan, Katie Couric, Byron Pitts and CNN's Anderson Cooper. The show was always in part about showbiz, minting stars, and pioneering elements such as the ambush interview, long since discarded by "60 Minutes," and the tight close-up on people as they're speaking. The stars may not burn quite as bright, but "60 Minutes" is still riding high. On the day of my second visit, Kroft was about to edit a story on...

KROFT: Marc Dreier, a very prominent New York lawyer who was one of the mini-Madoffs.

FOLKENFLIK: Kroft was one of just two reporters to get an interview with Dreier, before he entered Federal prison to start a 20-year sentence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW,"60 MINUTES")

MARC DREIER: ...interview me on a program such as yours would be for something good I've done, not something humiliating I've done.

KROFT: This isn't the way you wanted to be on "60 Minutes."

DREIER: No.

KROFT: Why did you want to do this interview?

DREIER: To apologize.

KROFT: You want to use the best material that you've got in the piece. I certainly knew that when I asked President Obama if he was punch-drunk, I knew that that was going to get in. When he started laughing in the middle of - of our interview...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

KROFT: Are you punch-drunk?

BARACK OBAMA: No, no. There's got to be a little gallows humor to get you through the day.

FOLKENFLIK: Former NBC News president Neal Shapiro says interviews like that one from March are still propelling the show after all these years. But that a harder edge has given it fresh life.

NEAL SHAPIRO: Jeff has made the show, given a little more zip to it. I think they jump on news stories a little quicker.

FOLKENFLIK: Shapiro is now CEO of public television's WNET in New York City. But during the 1990's, Shapiro was executive producer of one of "60 Minutes"'s many imitators, "Dateline NBC," which used to run five nights a week. Now it's down to one.

SHAPIRO: There are less news magazines around. And they have seemed to settle into a niche, which gives "60 Minutes" a huge area which is all of their own. There was a time when I think at one point there were 20 hours of news magazines on television.

FOLKENFLIK: Those that are still on schedule have veered toward a diet heavy on true crime and celebrity news. At "60 Minutes," Jeff Fager now sits in the very office held for decades by his mentor, the show's creator, the late Don Hewitt, a showman as well as a journalist. And Fager said it took him a bit of time to find sure footing after taking over more than five years ago.

FAGER: I wasn't ready for the fact that so many people wanted to be on this broadcast, especially from the sort of celebrity world. And I think I said yes too much. I think - I know I did. And it was my mistake and it affected our mix.

FOLKENFLIK: Funny thing - back then ratings were softer. Now Fager promises hard news will remain a bigger part of the mix.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF TICKING CLOCK)

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