CBS's Don Hewitt, the man behind '60 Minutes'
New York — I am waiting for "the man in the electronic mask," the secret weapon behind-the- camera, who many people believe is responsible for the phenomenal on-camera success of CBS's "60 Minutes": executive producer Don Hewitt.
The huge simulated pocket watch on the wall of the "60 Minutes" reception area reads 26 minutes after the hour -- no special hour, since there is only one hand. Last time I visited the "60 minutes office, it was across the 57th Street at the old CBS News shedlike building (it once housed a creamery, according to legend) near the Hud son River. Now, waiting to interview executive producer Hewitt, I look over the area assigned to this most successful news show in TV history, regularly rank ing near the top in the weekly top ten Nielsen shows.
It is spacious, tastefully decorated (except for an unpleasant green rug) in expensive-looking furniture and fixtures in black, white, and gray. However, the seemingly gray-flannel wallpaper turns out to be gray plastic when examined closely.
Mr. Hewitt's high booted secretary invites me to wait in Mr. Hewitt's office (the corner one, of course) and I enter, notebook in hand, to record a sumptuous , white backgrounded Persian rug on the floor and a large photo of his wife, Marilyn Berger, to the right of his huge desk.
There are also authographed photos of Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, and Elizabeth Taylor on the console. And on the wall to the left, prominently displayed, are signed photos of Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy, Jimmy Carter. Partially obscured by a huge plant is an autographed photo of Richard Nixon. On the desks are two cassettes of "Brigadoon" and a can of Tab. After all, I tell myself, I am the camera.
Fortunately, Don Hewitt arrives before I can record any further "revealing" trivia.
Don Hewitt is a feisty-looking little guy, who turns out to be just as feisty as he looks. Bantam-weight trim, he is ready to take on any opponents, especially the author of a current Saturday Review article which accusses "60 Minutes" of being guilty of distorting its interviews by editing and restructuring its Q's and A's, etc.
"Every news show on TV," he says vehemently, "compiles a huge amount of footage and uses on the air only snippets. Our ratio, as a rule, is lower than other news broadcasts.
"As to distortion, the charge that Mike Wallace or any other newsman on the show distorts by phony cutaway, reaction, or reverse question shots, well . . . I would fire anybody who edited something that he didn't think was a fair representation of the interview or report being done. We don't rely on editing any more than any other news show . . . or newspaper."
Mr. Hewitt says that Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Harry Reasoner, and Dan Rather are the coproducers of every story they do. "Any good reporter or editor uses sentences which he thinks accurately reflect the sense of the story he is after. If he uses everything,m he's a good transcriber, not a reporter."
Why do 45 million people watch "60 Minutes" every Sunday?
He chuckles, and there is the accumulated glee reflecting the ultimate victory which came after 13 years of battling for the integrity of this show. "More people watch this show than watch the ABC and NBC evening news combined. It's the only real family show on the air -- as interesting to the kids as to the moms and pops.
"The success has to be due to the four correspondents, a sensational staff of producers and film editors. But the viewership comes from the fact that each Sunday night 45 million people say to themselves, 'I wonder what Mike or Morley is going to do tonight. . . .'
"'60 Minutes' has become a viewing habit in America now. Like the old Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, and Ed Sullivan Shows. There are today only three habit-viewing shows on the air -- us, 'Friday Night Football,' and 'Dallas.'"
Mr. Hewitt continually refers to his superb staff. I wonder for a moment if the open door has something to do with that. "These guys are important to me," he assures me. "When Jim Schlesinger went to China we were invited to send a camera crew and a producer along . . . but there was no room for a correspondent.I said 'Thanks, but no thanks.' That would be like asking Scotty Reston if he'd like to send his typewriter to China."
What does "60 Minutes" do that's different from other news or magazine shows?
"The only thing we do differently is that we make the camera crew the vehicle through which Mike or Morley or Harry or Dan tell their stories, just as the typewriter and printing press is your vehicle. For too many years on TV news, the camera crews went out and covered stories and the correspondents provide the captions."
Mr. Hewitt dreamed up "60 Minutes" and has been with it right from the idea to its current supremacy. He is the only constant as correspondents come and go -- so it is evident that he is essential to its success, if not wholly responsible. When Dan Rather leaves at the end of this year, Ed Bradley will take his place.
"For 31 years I have been hearing that soon the networks would run out of fiction and have to turn to the news departments for reality programming."
Don Hewitt believes that the news magazine show is now as stable a part of the network news format as the evening news -- each network will always have such a show. Would he like to do another one for CBS?
"It would be possible to do more than one a week -- but they wouldn't be as good. I'd simply double my staff, get more producers, editors, crews, correspondents. I'd rather do two editions tan one longer one. . . . I've never really thought about that -- nobody has asked -- yet."
He laughs. "Look. I had an idea for a broadcat 13 years ago. I think I cast it correctly. I tended it with loving care. I'd like to believe that I have taste, which helps. I don't care about research and demographics -- I use gut demographics. If I like it, then I believe the average guy will like it. But I still realize that without those four guys, there's no broadcast."
Don protects his correspondents like a stage mother. When WRichard Nixon wanted to go on air live with Dan Rather last year, Hewitt refused to allow it.
"Dan once before got into a discussion with Nixon during the Watergate period and the public perception was that Dan was disrespectful. I was not going to put Dan in the position of sitting there for a half hour, afraid to interrupt for fear he would be back in the same old posture."
Don Hewitt claims he is influenced most by his producers. "Every producer on this staff is smarter than I am. I wouldn't hire anybody who wasn't smarter. We've had one editorial meeting in 13 and it was a disaster. If we had meetings , the show would look like meetings. If we had memos, the show would look like memos. My door is always open. The best stories start out with somebody walking in and saying, 'Have you ever thought about. . . ?'"
Any new directions for future "60 Minutes"?
"No. Just keep doing good stories, telling them well, accurately, fairly . . . whether its chemical warfare of Zubin Mehta. . . . And I don't listen to those critics who complain about talking heads . . . they are the best things on TV. There is nothing more exciting than the human head with a mouth that's got something to say. . . ."
What next for Don Hewitt?
"This is what's next. What I'm doing now. I've got eight more years before retirement. I don't want to do anything else. I don't want anybody else's job. I don't want to broadcast. I want to stay right here and do '60 Minutes' as well as it is being done right now. This is my dream realized." Dan and Morley on Don
Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner were out of town on assignments, but I managed to get Dan Rather and Morley Safer on the phone to ask them their reactions to their executive producer.
Said Dan Rather: "Don has never gotten as much credit as he deserves for the success of this show. It is impossible to overstate his importance to '60 Minutes.' He is the most creative and energetic person in TV news. Don's ability to get good people to work for him and then to create an atmosphere in which they can do their best work is unsurpassed. I'd be thrilled to have him do the CBS Evening News when I start anchoring . . . but that's not going to happen. Even if he wanted to go, they would not let him leave."
Said Morley Safer: "Hewitt is like a good tough seat-of-the-pants newspaper editor. He probably has a better understanding of why people watch TV than anybody I know. His instincts are superb -- occasionally, of course, he goes off half-cocked, but he is th ekind of guy who will listen to your objections and back off. He never loses interest in the piece, and show. He is still as boyishly enthusiastic as if the show were in its second edition rather than its 13th year.
"Let's face it, we aren't the four best reporters in the world. There are a lot of good reporters around. What we have going for us is Don Hewitt "
What American TV has going for it, too, is Don Hewitt.