Quick, name the executive producer of your favorite TV show. OK, how about any TV show? The fact is most producers labor in relative obscurity. Well, not Don Hewitt, the mastermind behind the newsmagazine 60 Minutes.
For the past 35 years, Hewitt has been as much a presence on 60 Minutes as the signature sweep of the secondhand, and his handprints are all over television as we know it today. He's credited with introducing cue cards and on-screen graphics and with coining the term "news anchor."
And he was the first news executive to turn velvet-fisted journalism into primetime profits. Hewitt steps down from his 60 Minutes helm at the end of this month but not away from journalism. News, he says, has always been in his blood.
"I was one of these kids that while other kids were playing cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians, I was playing reporter. And I don't know why. I just knew from the time I was maybe 4 years old that's what I wanted to be," he says. "And everything just -- I flunked out of college. I went to work at the Herald Tribune as a copyboy in 1942. I ended up on the beaches of Normandy as a war correspondent in World War II. I was working at a picture agency in New York when a friend of mine at CBS called and said, you know, 'CBS is looking for people with picture experience.' And I said, 'What would a radio network want with picture experience?' He said, 'No, no, not radio, television.' And I went and looked, and I couldn't believe -- I was mesmerized by the whole thing. And it's been a sleigh ride ever since."
Michele Norris: You directed the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and over time that was sort of a turning point; that listeners took one thing from that debate, viewers took something altogether different. Was that a turning point for you, also?
Don Hewitt: Yeah. I think that's the worst night in American politics. That's the night that the politicians looked at us and said, "Hey, those guys are the only way to run for office." And we looked at them and said, "Those guys are a bottomless pit of advertising dollars." It took me a lot of years to realize that this whole money game that politics has become in America all began that night.
Most people associate Don Hewitt with 60 Minutes. They know who you are and they know what you do, but they don't really know what you do behind closed doors. What did you do every day? What was your contribution to the show?
My greatest contribution to 60 Minutes was to hire the right people and leave them alone.
Now that sounds so simple; you hire good people and you leave them alone. I think it's a bit more complicated than that. The screaming sessions are legendary.
Yeah. You know, you leave them alone to do it, then when you look at the final product, you weigh in and you say, 'Listen, I think maybe the lead is in the middle, and maybe you ought to drop the ending, and maybe you ought to do this or that.' But that's what editors do everywhere. But I don't mess in their business when they're doing "the story."
What makes a good story?
Clarity. Look, I know what I compete with. I don't think other guys in television are as well -- I do not compete with ABC. I do not compete with NBC. I compete with that little remote sitting next to you on the couch. The minute the guy's mind wanders, he reaches for the remote. That remote is like a gun. People sit there at night and they kill people. "Bang! You're dead. Bang! You're dead." Let me ask you a question, if I may.
Can you name five movies you walked out of in your whole life?
Well, walked out on, no, but headed to the refrigerator, yeah. I could probably name five there, yeah.
Right. No, no, no, in a movie theater. In a movie theater.
Oh, in a movie theater? No, no, can't name five.
No, nobody can name -- you cannot name five movies you walked out of. You walk out of 35 television shows every night. You've made no commitment. And, you know, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I go through -- I don't know -- 800 channels now and I can't find anything to look at. So I go back to sleep.
What do you watch on television?
I love it.
Not much. I watch the news, I watch sports. I watch 60 Minutes every Sunday 'cause, you know, I kind of have an association with it.
When you look at 60 Minutes now, how much of it is journalism and how much of it is show business?
That's a loaded question. Look, there is -- "entertainment" is not a dirty word. And to make information entertaining is not necessarily -- even Ed Murrow knew that. Ed Murrow looked like Walter Pidgeon playing Ed Murrow. He was a matinee idol. And for anybody to tell you that he wasn't, they're kidding you. I don't see any reason why you can't make information palatable. And if you want to call it showbiz to make it palatable, that's -- I don't use the term, but I have no objection to you using it.
Don Hewitt, thanks for talking to us.
Don Hewitt, the creator and executive producer of "60 Minutes." Hewitt, who has always said that he would rather die at his desk than go quietly into retirement, is developing new programs for CBS.