'60 Minutes II' clocks in
PASADENA, CALIF. — If you like steak on Sunday, why not on Wednesday, too? Thus runs the marketing logic of the newest kid on the newsmagazine block, "60 Minutes II." Offspring of the venerable original, the clone debuted Wednesday night amid questions about the need for yet another newsmagazine. With its arrival, viewers now can choose from among 12 hours of prime-time newsmagazines each week. On Wednesdays, those who can't get enough of the format can watch it all evening: NBC's "Dateline" at 8 p.m. EST, CBS's "60 Minutes II" at 9, and ABC's "20/20" at 10. Producer Jeff Fager, a 60 Minutes veteran (and the source of the steak analogy), suggests that the award-winning original has set a standard that will allow its offspring to stand out from the pack: "The goal [is] to try our best to copy and duplicate the best traditions, the highest quality storytelling available." But perhaps in an effort to prevent the show from being reduced to just more hamburger by the competition for talent and top stories, the producers of "60 Minutes II" are taking few chances. While the highly rated, long-running original, now more than a quarter-century old, took time to develop its talent, the new format immediately offers veteran, high-profile journalists in Dan Rather and Bob Simon, interviewer supreme Charlie Rose, and lesser-known but experienced Vicki Mabrey, fetched from the London bureau. Beyond that roster, the new show will also offer a nod to its progenitor each week by airing what producers are calling "classic" stories from the original "60 Minutes" in each show. Mr. Fager suggests this represents an opportunity rather than a safety net by saying that the correspondents can revisit important issues, "and the developments are sometimes so dramatic and fascinating, that's part of [the show] as well." While industry observers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward yet another newsmagazine (it even took some convincing to warm "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt to the idea), albeit one with such a stellar pedigree, they have been pointed in their questions about the newest voice to fill the traditional Andy Rooney commentator spot, comedian Jimmy Tingle. At a meeting of national TV critics last weekend, producer Fager had his feet held to the fire over hiring an entertainer with no experience in journalism. "He's a writer," Fager offered in defense, "quite a good writer, and he has such an interesting look at the world." Asked whether the anchor of the CBS evening news can devote sufficient time to another full-time job, Mr. Rather is both confident and cautious about the need to occasionally "parachute" in - drop into a story after most of the legwork has been done by others. "There's no way to avoid it, and I'm not going to try to kid you," he says. But he goes on to observe that the attitude that he believes will separate this show from the other newsmagazines goes back to its parent. "Everybody in '60 Minutes' ... is emotionally involved in the responsibilities of putting the broadcast together," he says. Questions about Charlie Rose, a man widely considered to be an artist of the long-form interview rather than the investigative reporting more typical of "60 Minutes," are fielded by Mr. Rose with the same deceptive casualness that is a hallmark of his interview technique. "I don't think there are lines between reporting," he reflects, noting that in his experience there are only two kinds, "good and bad." As to whether he might have to make some adjustments in his technique as a journalist, he laughs and says the process has already begun. "I can't step on people's words the way I can in a continuous conversation," he says, "and I have to ask nice short questions." The youngest and only female correspondent on the show, Ms. Mabrey, says that the success of the original lay in part with the strong personalities of the reporters. She points out that while the hosts of other newsmagazine shows are well known, their reporters generally are not. "The individual personalities are so strong [in the "60 Minutes" format] and that creates the foundation for a strong show," she says. As to whether her youth or gender was a factor in her hiring, she says, "No show can have all of one thing. Variety is a basic part of putting together a good package."