Don Hewitt, recognized as a father of modern television news and the creator of the medium’s most successful broadcast, 60 MINUTES, died of pancreatic cancer today. He was 86 and was with family at the time of death.
Hewitt was executive producer of CBS News, the title he took when he stepped down from his post as executive producer of 60 MINUTES in 2004.
Hewitt’s remarkable career in journalism spanned over 60 years, virtually all of it at CBS. As a young producer/director assisting at the birth of television news, it was usually Hewitt behind the scenes directing legendary CBS News reporters like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, using a playbook he had to write himself. He played an integral role in all of CBS News’ coverage of major news events from the late 1940s through the 1960s, putting him in the middle of some of history’s biggest events, including one of politics’ seminal moments: the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
Hewitt also directed the first network television newscast, featuring Douglas Edwards, on May 3, 1948. Hewitt produced and directed coverage for the three networks of the debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. He was the executive producer of the first half-hour network newscast when the CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE became the first to go to a 30-minute format on Sept. 2, 1963. Among Hewitt’s innovations was the use of cue cards for newsreaders, the electronic version of which, the TelePrompTer, is still used today. He was the first to use “supers” – putting type in the lower third of the television screen to identify who is speaking. Another invention of Hewitt’s was the film “double” – cutting back and forth between two projectors – an editing breakthrough that re-shaped television news. Hewitt also helped develop the positioning of cameras and reporters still used to cover news events, especially political conventions.
Hewitt had seemingly done it all for broadcast news when he topped those achievements by producing his magnum opus, the television news magazine 60 MINUTES – a new concept that changed television news forever and became the biggest hit in the medium’s history.
Hewitt’s idea for 60 MINUTES was to break up the traditional hour documentary into a three-segment magazine – a Life of the airwaves. It would work if he and his team could “package an hour of reality as compellingly as Hollywood packages an hour of make-believe,” Hewitt often recalled. His first step was to pick a “white hat” and a “black hat.” Hewitt put the black hat on the grand inquisitor, Mike Wallace, and made the avuncular Harry Reasoner the white hat to launch his news magazine on Sept. 24, 1968. The broadcast ran in various time slots for several seasons before a focus on investigative stories and a permanent home on Sunday nights — running after CBS’ football coverage — helped 60 MINUTES catch fire with the public. Critics praised the unique program and it won awards right from the beginning, but the move to Sundays proved crucial.
After its first full season in the 7:00 P.M. slot, 60 MINUTES became a top-20 hit in 1977. The next year, it was a top-10 hit, a rank it would reach 23 straight seasons – a record no other program ever approached. Two years later, in 1980, it was the number one program, a feat it would achieve five times – a record only matched by “All in the Family” and “The Cosby Show.”
Hewitt always had stock answers to questions about what 60 MINUTES’ secret was. He often told journalists, “It’s four words every child knows: Tell me a story.” He sometimes wondered if people flocked to 60 MINUTES as to church on Sunday for redemption from a week of watching entertainment programs. He sometimes said it was people’s interest in the adventures of his correspondents that made it so compelling. But he also admitted it was the talent of his staff, saying he never hired anyone who wasn’t smarter than himself.
Hewitt won every major award numerous times and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1990. He won scores of Emmy awards – including a special Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003 and The Founder’s Emmy in 1995. The Founder’s Emmy citation reads, “Awarded to the creator of 60 MINUTES for a body of work crossing geographic and cultural boundaries to touch our common humanity.”