Is there anything worse than losing NFL football — or eight affiliates — to the stealth-like Fox network? Yes. Some observers think these recent blows to CBS could result in damage to its crown jewel: 60 Minutes. This fall, the 26-year- old newsmagazine faces a season without the NFL as its cushy lead-in, as well as the loss of CBS stations in such big cities as Dallas and Detroit. And considering that the show’s talent — both on camera and behind the scenes — is fast aging, it might be time to ask whether time’s running out for 60 Minutes.
It’s possible, says Joe Mandese, media editor of Advertising Age. “One question is how many late games will Fox have with football?” says Mandese. “Will viewers say, ‘Well, I’ve missed 10 or 15 minutes of 60 Minutes. I’ll stick with this Fox lineup.’” (The network is pitting Fortune Hunter, a James Bondesque show, against 60 Minutes.) Mandese’s view is shared by at least a few CBS employees. Some staffers at 60 Minutes’ New York office — where the bulletin boards are papered with clips about the CBS-Fox warfare — believe ratings could fall. Says one television insider, “If Fox has a string of great late games, that could knock it out of the top five-but not the top 10.”
Industry observers, such as network media buyer Paul Schulman, believe 60 Minutes’ appeal transcends time — and changing lead-ins. Schulman points out that the show, which finished No. 2 for the 1993-94 season, averaged a slightly higher share last year after the football season. Says Schulman, “Football doesn’t make 60 Minutes; (producer) Don Hewitt does.”
The show is acknowledged to be TV’s best newsmagazine, but how long can a staff whose average age is 62 stay on top? Hewitt is 71, and star reporter Mike Wallace is 76. The rest of the team includes Morley Safer, 62, Ed Bradley and Lesley Stahl, both 52, and the show’s cub reporter, Steve Kroft, who is pushing 48. Recently, when correspondent Andy Rooney, 75, blithely dismissed the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, he seemed out of it. So many viewers wrote in to protest that Rooney had to apologize.
CBS spokesman Roy Brunett bristles at the age issue. “Since when is it wrong to have an older person asking questions?” he says. “Besides, the unsung people are producers in their 30s to 50s.”
Hewitt denies that the show is under pressure and insists he has no plans to change the show. “That’s what the hacks do,” says Hewitt. “They jazz up the graphics and the music. We just roll with the punches.” He does say that the show is looking for fresh faces; he’s very high on Jana Wendt, 38, an Australian TV reporter who started contributing to the program in March.
In the end, Hewitt believes the show will survive not in spite of its age and tradition, but because of it. “We really don’t care about the Joey Buttafuocos and the Menendez brothers,” he says. “We pioneered this business. I’m the youngest guy I know, and Mike Wallace could lick any kid in the house.” When the fall season comes, he may just have to.