When News Happened, Don Hewitt Was There Don Hewitt, who died on Aug. 19 at age 86, didn't invent the TV newsmagazine, but he sure invented the most successful and durable one. David Bianculli offers a remembrance of the man behind 60 Minutes.

When News Happened, Don Hewitt Was There

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. Don Hewitt, the veteran TV producer-director who created the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes," died this week at the age of 86. In a few minutes, we'll listen to Terry's 2001 interview with Hewitt. But first, our TV critic David Bianculli, who considers Hewitt one of the seminal figures in the history of television news.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Don Hewitt didn't invent the TV news magazine, 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 Don 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, Don Hewitt worked with them both - not only worked with them, but predated them and outlasted them. His career, like his impact on television news, 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 in the past. Last week's installment, featuring the first post-prison TV interview with Michael Vick, was the week's second most popular program.

That's an amazing track record for a show that premiered in 1968, but Don 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, Don 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.

Don 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 anchor, Don Hewitt was an associate director and soon became the program's director. And when Edward R. Murrow made a wary but brilliant transition from radio to television, in 1951's landmark CBS newsmagazine "See It Now," Don Hewitt was at his side, literally, as Murrow explained at the start of the very first show.

(Soundbite of TV show, "See It Now")

Mr. EDWARD R. MURROW (Journalist): This is an old team trying to learn a new trade. When we started this series of programs, we had to decide where to do it from. We decided to do it right here from the studio. My purpose will be not to get in your light any more than I can, to lean over the cameraman's shoulder occasionally and say a word which may help to illuminate or explain what is happening.

We have here two monitors, which will serve in effect the purpose of loudspeakers. They are tied, so to speak, to lines that come in from Chicago, New York, Washington and various other places. We will, from time to time, show film on those monitors as well.

We are, as newcomers to this medium, rather impressed by the whole thing, impressed, for example, that I can turn to Don Hewitt here and say, Don, will you push a button and bring in the Atlantic coast?

BIANCULLI: And at that point, Don 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, Don 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 a TV icon. And so on, up to and including Bill and Hillary Clinton's campaign-saving 1992 appearance on "60 Minutes." Arguably, Don Hewitt influenced the elections of JFK in 1960 and Bill Clinton 32 years later. And Hewitt's career didn't end there.

But it's not just the durability or the impact that impresses me, though both of those do impress me. More than anything else, what's most incredible about Don 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 Walter Cronkite died earlier this summer, most analysts expressed regret that we'll never see his kind again in TV news. Sad to say, but the same thing is true of Don Hewitt.

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

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