Critical Questions: 60 Minutes Across the Decades
Wes Unruh - 9/25/2014
In anticipation of the new 47th season of 60 Minutes, I discussed the history and transformation of the program with Professor Richard Campbell. Campbell’s book 60 Minutes and the News: A Mythology for Middle America, published in 1991, took a critical look at the formulas and the narrative frames that 60 Minutes developed and perfected in its first 20 or so years on the air, highlighting the editorializing subtext implicit in how different stories were presented. His book brought an insight into the television magazine’s format by detailing the different roles that the journalists of 60 Minutes take on to guide the viewers through the different stories, roles like detective, tourist, or therapist, depending on the story. Campbell also detailed the filmic techniques used by 60 Minutes, such as tight close-ups that establish a person onscreen as a villain or a victim. In the interview that follows, he explains what brought such high ratings to 60 Minutes over the years, and the resulting cultural impact of 60 Minutes.
Wes Unruh: 60 Minutes has been on the air since 1968, and over the years a number of spin-offs have aired as well, including 30 Minutes, 60 Minutes II, and 60 Minutes on CNBC. What accounts for the enduring nature of 60 Minutes, and how has its format updated and changed over the years since it first began?
Richard Campbell: What elevated 60 Minutes to high ratings was an attention to storytelling and the employment of the detective formula as a narrative device. At the heart of this formula is dramatic conflict between the individual and the institution, with the 60M reporters usually favoring the individual and demonizing the institution. In a nation where individualism may be our strongest shared value … this is central to the popularity and endurance of the show. This formula, along with a few others, like the therapist and tourist, are still in use today.
WU: What aspects of 60 Minutes were unique when it first came to television, and has its particular stylistic and structural approach to presenting stories influenced the way local and regional news is created?
RC: The biggest change was employing his reporters as narrative characters, usually in more shots than any other character in the story. Compare this to a network evening newscast, in which a reporter may appear only briefly in one bridge stand-up or a closing stand up at the end of a 2-minute report. On the network news, the anchor is the star and gets the screen time, not the hard-working reporter in the field. And, by the way, it was Don Hewitt who coined the phrase “news anchor.” The use of the reporter as star on 60 Minutes have helped audiences identify with the reporter just as they would identify with a fictional detective. They also reinforced this by giving reporters more visual space in the frame, usually shot in medium shots that contrasted dramatically with the tight close-up framing of their interview subjects. This portrayed the reporter as a character who appeared more in control of the space around him and the story he was telling.
WU: Don Hewitt created 60 Minutes. In 1988 he received a Peabody Award in recognition of the impact his work with CBS News, and 60 Minutes in particular, has had on the lives of citizens in the U.S. What were some of the more notable stories he brought to the public, which helped bring about social change?
RC: It’s hard for me to remember but the program has helped free innocent prisoners. Its impact is much less today because its audience is probably ¼ of what it used to be in TV’s Big Three Network Era (from the late 1950s to the late 1980s). Still, it reaches a larger audience than any other news venue … and remains a top 20 program in the ratings – after 46 years on the air. It also rocketed to success on the public’s interest in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, once 60 Minutes settled into its Sunday night prime time slot and started developing big audiences, particularly men coming from watching pro football. By interviewing key figures in those major events, 60 Minutes personalized Vietnam and Watergate in a way that traditional news and network documentaries did not. In 1992, Bill Clinton saved his presidential run by appearing with Hillary to discuss his affair with Jennifer Flowers. Hillary and the public “forgave” him and he had the biggest single audience he would ever have – probably close to 40 million people watched that episode.
WU: In the previous two decades, the 60 Minutes franchise has won numerous Peabody Awards for specific stories, such as 1993’s ‘The CIA’s Cocaine,’ 2009’s story ‘Sabotaging the System’ and the 60 Minutes II story ‘Abuse at Abu Ghraib’ which aired in 2004. When these stories aired, the impact was felt in government and in changes in public opinion, about the subjects of the stories. Would these stories have had the same impact without the 60 Minutes reputation framing the story?
RC: No … but the impact was not as large as it was the mid 1970s to the early 1990s, when 60 Minutes was always a top ten show … and no. 1 in three different decades. No TV program has ever done that before … and will probably never do that again. It has also made more money that any program in the history of prime-time. Hewitt once told me—for an article I did on the 25th anniversary of the program for the Columbia Journalism Review—that 60 Minutes “had single-handedly ruined television” by spawning all these cheap imitators — like 20/20 and Dateline—and those shows did not do his formulas nearly as well.
WU: Are we seeing stories today on 60 Minutes that would have been covered in different ways, or not at all, under Don Hewitt’s leadership? Does the online content and franchising of 60 Minutes fundamentally change the editorial decisions in how a story makes it to the screen?
RC: I really don’t watch it very much anymore. It’s not as good as it used to be under Hewitt. There are no star reporters on there who are the caliber of Morley Safer, Harry Reasoner, Mike Wallace, Diane Sawyer, Ed Bradley, and Dan Rather (in his best years).
WU: In reading your 1991 book 60 Minutes and the News, you highlighted the myth-building nature of 60 Minutes, especially in how it constructed the notion of ‘common sense’ and its relation to the way scientists and experts performed technical knowledge and expertise. This notion of ‘common sense’ ran throughout Andy Rooney’s regular closing commentaries, a weekly calling out of the nonsensical features of modern life. Do you believe the loss of Andy Rooney and Don Hewitt has changed 60 Minutes’ appeal to ‘common sense?’
RC: Rooney and Hewitt both instinctively knew that their job was to transform complex issues into dramatic stories and folksy commentaries that people could understand. While in doing this 60 Minutes often oversimplified an event or issue, people still had a sense of what was going on if you represented events and issues as common sense detective narratives or straight- talking conversations – the way neighbors might discuss issues over the backyard fence.
WU: I was particularly struck by how you broke down the different types of roles reporters found themselves represented in different stories, with the reporter acting as therapist, detective, or tourist, depending on the needs of the story itself. 60 Minutes seems unique in developing news as a kind of adventure, with the commentators and reporters acting as avatars for an audience that is equal parts curmudgeonly, cynical, and empathic. With online content, a growing franchise, and a growing stable of reporters, is this still true of 60 Minutes audiences today?
RC: The media landscape is, of course, fragmented today. But 60 Minutes has found its place. (It has one of the oldest demographics – over 60 as the median age – but not as old as Fox News, which is 68.) It’s not as influential today but still a major player as the biggest news venue in a fractured media world … and there will always be an appetite and demand for good storytelling. We are narrative animals and that’s what people want: experience transformed into narratives with characters who articulate central values and help all of us understand the differences between good and evil, right and wrong, old and young, individual and institution, among other familiar binary oppositions that we expect to find in stories that help us make sense of our lives. It’s just that today there are many more ways to get those stories. And the blogosphere is probably the postmodern incarnation of Andy Rooney … only on steroids.
I often argue that other than Doppler radar, 60 Minutes is that last great innovation in network and local news—and that was 45-plus years ago. Fictional storytelling in prime time has evolved. We would laugh at 1970s and 1980s shows like Dallas and Dynasty today – they could never get onto TV now given how complex dramas have become on AMC, HBO, Showtime, and Netflix. Think of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, and House of Cards. So why has TV news remained entrenched in old formulas and time constraints that are virtually unchanged over the past 45 years? Why has 60 Minutes’ formula for news magazines remained the standard for doing long-form TV news? Aren’t there other ways to tell news stories? It is no wonder young people are looking to The Daily Show, blog sites, citizen journalism, and social network venues for news and information. Perhaps they want something to match the more complicated world and storytelling around them, in everything from TV dramas to interactive videogames to their own conversations. We should expect more significant news stories that better represent that complexity than the yelling partisan heads on cable and the formulaic 1:30-minute local TV news packages telling stories about college students “gone wild” over spring break during sweeps week.
About the Interviewee: Richard Campbell is Professor and Chair of the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of 60 Minutes and the News: A Mythology for Middle America (University of Illinois Press, 1991) and co-author of Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade and the Reagan Legacy (Duke University Press, 1994). Campbell has also written for Columbia Journalism Review, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Journal of Communication, and Television Quarterly. His most recent work, “The Decline of Modern Journalism in the Neo-Partisan Era,” is included in The International Encyclopedia of Media Studies: Media Studies Futures (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). For Bedford/St.Martin’s Press, he is the lead author of Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age (9th ed.), the nation’s top media survey textbook; Media Essentials: A Brief Introduction (2nd edition); and Media in Society: A Narrative Approach. Campbell earned his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Radio-Television-Film and worked as print reporter and TV and radio news writer in Milwaukee. He also serves as Miami University’s representative on the Board of Directors for Cincinnati Public Radio.
Note: The opinions of all interviewees are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Peabody Board.