Now in its 23rd season, 60 Minutes remains one of the most popular shows on television. This season the ratings are particularly strong; the program usually makes the Nielsen top 5 and is seen in approximately 19.6 million homes each week. Not only is 60 Minutes the sole news show to have achieved such prominence but it's also one of the few long- running shows of any kind to maintain such a high level of quality.
Mike Wallace may be a little jowly these days, but there he was, just a few weeks ago, shivering manfully in the chill wind of Moscow, presiding over an incisive report on the Soviet person-on-the-street's intense dissatisfaction with Mikhail Gorbachev's economic policies. (A woman peering into an empty grocery freezer case said flatly, ''The whole society is disintegrating''; Mike did what he does best he nodded grimly.)
Executive producer Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, believes the show's ongoing popularity ''comes down to that ancient phrase 'Tell me a story.' I think people are interested in stories, not issues,'' he told the Los Angeles Times recently, ''even though the stories may be about people coping with issues.'' And so, week after week, Wallace and a hardy band of fellow correspondents the current crew is Morley Safer, Harry Reasoner, Ed Bradley, Meredith Vieira, and Steve Kroft go out into the world and bring back the stories that so many of us find fascinating.
Case in point: a Feb. 17 Steve Kroft report on the 130 families in a Colorado housing development where six-year-old homes, which originally sold for an average price of $75,000, cannot find buyers because, as Kroft says, ''the development boom went bust.'' The developers went bankrupt, leaving the homeowners holding the bag on, among other things, a massive tax bill that most of these families cannot afford. This was a classic 60 Minutes story, complete with such highly sympathetic victims as the woman who said, with tears welling up, ''My husband is in the Persian Gulf fighting for his country, and I'm here at the home front fighting to keep the place where he lives.''
The history of 60 Minutes divides into roughly three periods. In its first era, from the show's debut in 1968 through the '70s, 60 Minutes made its reputation as a muckraking bulldog of a show, offering exposés of companies that exploited their employees and scoops like Dan Rather's 1980 report on the Afghan warriors fighting Soviet occupation. During its first decade, 60 Minutes became a pop-culture fixture, its hotheaded ''Point Counterpoint'' segment with Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick parodied most famously on NBC's Saturday Night Live (''Jane, you ignorant slut!'').
Throughout the '80s, 60 Minutes seemed to grow complacent, even soft. Andy Rooney's nattering commentary replaced ''Point Counterpoint,'' and 1984 addition Diane Sawyer added little to the show beyond a certain glamorous hauteur. But it often seemed as if people were tuning in more for the show's lighter segments gentle, often fawning profiles of everyone from Vladimir Horowitz to Johnny Carson than for its increasingly uneven hard-news material.
In the past year, however, 60 Minutes has roused itself, and its '90s editions compare favorably with shows from its finest years. In December, the show even did what its critics had accused it of assiduously avoiding in recent years: courting controversy by going against the prevailing wisdom. A report by Mike Wallace cast doubt on the accuracy of an official Israeli government account of the killing of 19 Palestinians by Israeli police during a demonstration at Jerusalem's Temple Mount last October. Details of this incident had already appeared in The Village Voice, which was given full credit in Wallace's report, but 60 Minutes brought the story much wider exposure while demonstrating the show's surest strengths. The facts in this complicated piece were reported in a clear, easy-to-follow manner, and the segment had a visual hook that made it dramatically compelling: the testimony of a handsome Palestinian boy, one of the rock throwers, who offered his version of the controversy with grave eloquence.
The segment was praised by those who feel that Palestinians are rarely granted the opportunity to tell their side in the American media and denounced by those who felt the show was aggressively anti-Israel. ''I think what people objected to was that the young Palestinian boy was so attractive,'' Hewitt said recently. ''I got the feeling that they wanted him to be swarthy, a bomb thrower.''
It's not just on the hard-news pieces that 60 Minutes is showing some renewed spunk, either. Ed Bradley's recent profile of Paul Simon was easily the best interview anyone got out of the singer-songwriter during the publicity blitz for his latest album, The Rhythm of the Saints.
Simon reminisced about how angry Joe DiMaggio had been to hear the line ''Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?'' in the 1968 Simon and Garfunkel hit ''Mrs. Robinson.'' DiMaggio considered suing and called for a meeting with Simon and their respective lawyers. The baseball legend told Simon his song implied that he, Joe DiMaggio, was washed up, when in fact he was still making , public appearances and doing commercials for Mr. Coffee. Simon paused for a long time, and Bradley let the silence hang in the air. ''He had not yet,'' Simon said finally, carefully, with a rueful smile, ''begun to think of himself as a metaphor.''
Who says pop stars aren't witty? Who says 60 Minutes isn't, at 23 years old, a pretty darn hip show?