Don Hewitt: Director and producer who created '60 Minutes', CBS's pioneering news magazine programme
Thursday 03 September 2009
The director and producer Don Hewitt was one of the early titans of American television; he created a news-magazine format which was phenomenally successful and extraordinarily durable. The programme he created, 60 Minutes, runs to this day and provided a template for much US television. Hewitt remained in personal charge of it for decades; his prestige was such that he was in his 80s before he was finally delicately shunted aside from the post of executive producer. The irony of it was that he had originally came up with the idea after being shunted sideways by a boss, Fred Friendly, who considered him too lightweight. According to Hewitt: "Fred thought I was too glitzy, that I wasn't serious enough."
Hewitt has also gone down in TV history as the man whose offer of make-up to Richard Nixon, in advance of his presidential debate with John F. Kennedy, was famously turned down. The fact that the highly telegenic Kennedy looked so much better than the morose Nixon established the new political reality that what a politician looked like could be at least as important as what he said.
Donald Shepard Hewitt was born into a middle-class Jewish family in New York City in 1922. At school he contributed to his local paper and dropped out of university after a year to take the then standard route into journalism, becoming a copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune. When the US entered the war he joined the Merchant Marine and worked as a correspondent at the London headquarters of Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
He returned to journalism after the war, working for a number of concerns before a friend told him in 1948 that CBS had an opening in television. Radio was the senior and much more influential medium at the time, with television regarded as something of a fad which might or might not last. According to Hewitt, he knew so little about television that he responded to his friend: "Whatavision?" But he went on to join CBS and became a television pioneer, working with legends such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
At CBS he worked as a director and producer, playing an important role in the network's coverage of such major news events as the first political conventions to be televised and the assassination of Martin Luther King. He was on hand when media history was made in 1960, as he directed the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate. Hewitt said that Kennedy declined when he asked him if he wanted make-up. He added: "He was tan and looked great. And when Nixon heard him say no, he said no too."
Many of those who listened to the encounter on radio felt Nixon won the debate. But most of those who watched on television judged the handsome Kennedy the victor over Nixon, who was not particularly well and whose jowls and five o'clock shadow did him no favours on TV.
Hewitt's career received a setback when he was taken off the main evening news and transferred to make documentaries. He momentarily believed that the move was a promotion until a friend told him, "Kid, you just got fired". The judgement of the CBS management was that Hewitt had "lots of dazzle, lots of pace," but not enough serious content. For many years he was exiled from the news frontline, turning out worthy documentaries which in that era attracted only modest ratings.
Frustrated with his role, Hewitt experimented and came up with a formula which would combine seriousness with lighter themes: in later years it might have been called "infotainment". His idea for 60 Minutes was for three separate segments of professionally packaged documentaries which mixed hard news, investigative items and sheer entertainment. Presenters such as Mike Wallace were showcased and became household names, and later millionaires. The format provided viewers with everything from the seriously scientific to the frankly populist. As Hewitt put it in his autobiography Tell Me a Story: Fifty years and 60 Minutes in television: "You can look in Marilyn Monroe's closet, if you're also willing to look in Robert Oppenheimer's laboratory."
Most viewers may have tuned in to see Marilyn and other celebrity profiles, but many of them stayed on to watch the more serious elements, presented as they were in Hewitt's bold, lively style. The 60 Minutes formula turned out to be exactly what American viewers wanted. It made a fortune for CBS – news programmes never previously had – and brought Hewitt himself fortune and media power. He summed himself up as "a guy who married showbiz and newsbiz".
"The formula is simple," he wrote in his memoirs. "It's reduced to four words every kid in the world knows: tell me a story. It's that easy." He also bragged: "I operate by my guts and my fingertips. Television is successful when you have a gut feeling about a show."
He had two specific inspirations for how he told his stories, one of them was Life, the photo magazine which classically served up a mixture of heavyweight and lightweight subjects. He was upfront about this, saying, "I unashamedly admit I stole this programme lock, stock and barrel, from Life magazine."
His other inspiration was the movies. "I grew up with them," he said. "I'm just such a child of the movies." He said he asked himself, "What if we made a program that was multi-subject and packaged reality as attractively as Hollywood packages fiction?"
The show was a roaring success on different levels. It won an extraordinarily large audience, remaining in the viewing top 10 for 23 straight seasons and sometimes reaching the number one spot. Because of this it made unprecedented profits for a news magazine, since its sky-high ratings meant the network could command premium advertising rates. The industry and the critics hailed it as something special: it won 73 Emmys and a shower of other awards. In its heyday it was seen by 28 million viewers.
Hewitt went on to show a flair not just for inventing a format but for maintaining its momentum, coming up with a new range of camera shots and technical innovations. Over the years he kept a tight personal grip on the show, ensuring it kept up its "lots of dazzle, lots of pace."
He thus became one of the kings of American television with the format which endures to this day. One US TV executive said recently: "There isn't a news show on television that doesn't have Don Hewitt's DNA in it."
His best-known front man was Mike Wallace, who was one of the few with the status to stand up to Hewitt's famously frenetic and combative management style. Behind the scenes they had huge rows with much yelling and screaming, Wallace explaining: "It gets your blood moving, it makes you feel alive."
Hewitt himself used to tell the story of how Wallace had once collapsed. He maintained his first thought was about the perennial ratings war: he claimed he looked at Wallace and said, "Oh he's dead – now we're never going to catch Cheers."
His tenure at the top had highlights and low points. Bill Clinton chose it during his presidential run in 1992, for example, to address allegations of his infidelity. Many of the 60 Minutes investigations uncovered corruption.
But a low point in the show's history came in the mid-1990s when Hewitt was said to have lost his nerve and bowed to management pressure to water down an exclusive on tobacco and health. This was an interview with an industry insider who was prepared to say that company executives knew tobacco caused disease but covered it up. Hewitt was later to admit he was not proud of his handling of the episode.
Hewitt, who at an early stage of his career had looked like something of a misfit at CBS, went on to outpoint and indeed outlive his detractors. Almost incredibly, he remained in charge of the show until the age of 80.
It was in 2003 that CBS finally managed to persuade him to move upstairs, giving him the consolation of a new title and a large office. He was given a contract that would last until the age of 90, and the right to grumble about anything he did not approve of in the show he had fathered at the dawn of US television news.
Donald Shepard Hewitt, television producer: born New York 14 December 1922; married firstly Mary Weaver (two sons, marriage dissolved), secondly Frankie Childers (two daughters, marriage dissolved), thirdly Marilyn Berger; died Bridgehampton, New York 19 August 2009.
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