AJR  Columns
From AJR,   August/September 2009

So Old It Seems New   

“60 Minutes” continues to focus on serious journalism—and it’s thriving.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     

Imagine a television news program with no flashy graphics and no theme music. A program whose full-time correspondents are all white and, with one exception, male. A program that features stories made up largely of talking heads.

There's no way that kind of program could draw an audience today, is there? It's so..last century.

But that could be the secret of its success.

"60 Minutes," the long-running Sunday night staple on CBS, just concluded its best season in almost a decade, reversing what had been a slow but steady decline in the ratings. According to Nielsen Media Research, the program averaged more than 14 million viewers per week – up 10 percent from the year before – and finished the season ranked 13th in prime time. No other news program came close.

Executive Producer Jeff Fager calls the results "astounding," especially in a time of diminishing returns for most broadcast television. And "60 Minutes" did it, he says, by sticking to what it has always done – hard news, in depth.

"The conventional wisdom says, 'Go softer, people don't want to hear bad news,' " Fager says. "But we covered war and the financial crisis, and people watched. That's gratifying."

The program aired more topical stories than usual this season, largely because it was a heck of a year for news. The show scored some solid "gets," including the first TV interview with President-elect Barack Obama; the first televised interview in 20 years with a Federal Reserve Board chairman; and the first sit-down with Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, the US Airways pilot who ditched safely in the Hudson River.

The look and format of the show haven't changed much since it went on the air more than 40 years ago: three stories, running 13 minutes on average, plus a kicker. The pieces are long by today's TV news standards, and they can take months to produce. That's hugely expensive, but the program pays for itself and then some, so its staff has the kind of autonomy rarely found at the networks anymore.

And yet, stodgy old "60 Minutes" has become almost revolutionary in today's fast-paced, gadget-happy TV news world. "Breathlessly trying to use new technology has become the new orthodoxy," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. In that environment, "'60 Minutes' seems like it's something new, even though it's ancient."

The program's old-fashioned approach to interviewing sets it apart, too. As correspondent Steve Kroft told the Washington Post, "The point of an interview is to try to get useful information and allow people to reveal things about themselves." Would someone please tell that to the gasbags hosting prime time shows on the cable news channels?

Despite its success and its simple formula, "60 Minutes" hasn't spawned many imitators. CBS tried to clone it 10 years ago but gave up after six seasons and one highly publicized scandal over a disputed story about then-President George W. Bush's National Guard service.

About the only thing the other prime time news magazines have in common with "60 Minutes" is that they're all an hour long. The Web page of "Dateline NBC," for example, candidly describes that show as featuring "news stories about crime, celebrity and health."

Not everything "60 Minutes" does is weighty, and that's part of its appeal. This season, the program ran stories about bullfighting and winemaking. But for every celebrity profile – from Dolly Parton to LeBron James – there were far more stories about issues, from the collapse of the mortgage industry to the promise of "clean" coal. This year, "60 Minutes" picked up its 15th Peabody Award for a powerful report on the world of the uninsured in America.

The program has proved that people will watch important stories if they're interesting. Viewers like good stories, period, and "60 Minutes" tells them, without resorting to gimmicks or gotchas.

"There is a sense of legacy and authority to '60 Minutes,'" says Horace Newcomb, director of the Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia. "There is a gravitas about the show that makes it work."

At least one reason for that is the age of its on-air reporters. While the show has younger contributors, including Lara Logan and Byron Pitts, the regulars are all over 50. Lesley Stahl, the only woman, is 67.

It's tempting to think that the program's success says something about viewers' renewed interest in hard-hitting TV journalism. "It may bode well," Newcomb says. "What they get off the Web may be too quick and easy."

That may be a stretch, but at a time when almost all the news about TV news is gloomy, "60 Minutes" offers some small reason for optimism.

So how long can it keep going? Fager, who at 54 is marking his fifth year with the program, laughs. "Longer than me, I hope."