1 9 6 8 – Current (USA)
1 9 7 9 – Current (Australia)
In 1967 Don Hewitt conceived of his new programme, 60 Minutes, as a strategy for addressing issues given insufficient time for analysis in two minutes of the Evening News but not deemed significant enough to justify an hour-long documentary.
60 Minutes was born, then, in an environment of management tension and initial ambiguity regarding its form.
Bill Leonard, CBS vice president for News Programming, supported the new concept, but Richard Salant, president of the News Division, argued it countered that unit’s commitment to the longer form and risked taking the hard edge off television journalism.
The series first aired on 24 September 1968 and CBS proclaimed the ground-breaking potential of this magazine form, announcing that no existing phrase could describe the series” configuration and that any attempt to gauge (or predict) demographic appeal based on comparisons with traditional public affairs programming was a limited prospect.
Yet, by the Spring of 1993, the series success was so established within the history of network programming that CBS and 60 Minutes had competition from six other prime-time magazine programmes.
From September 1966 to December 1975, network management shifted the scheduling position of 60 Minutes seven times. Its ratings were very low according to industry standards, although slightly higher than those of CBS Reports when aired in the same time slot, but critical response remained positive.
Hewitt predicted high ratings if 60 Minutes packaged stories, not news items, as “attractively as Hollywood packages fiction.”
A confrontational style of journalism, pioneered by Mike Wallace, grew and was embraced by a more confrontational society. In the 1970s certain correspondents seemed to speak for a public under siege by institutional greed and deceit.
Wallace’s role remained consistent as the crusading detective, played, as the series began, opposite Harry Reasoner’s calm, analytical and introspective persona.
As correspondents were added (Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer, Meredith Vieria, Steve Kroft, and Lesley Stahl) Hewitt developed complimentary personas.
An Australian version of 60 Minutes first went to air on 11 February 1979 with reporters Ray Martin (pictured at right), George Negus and Ian Leslie. Taking a lead from its successful mentor on the CBS Network, the Australian version sought to tell stories in what has become the unique 60 Minutes style.
800 programmes and more than 2,000 stories later, 60 Minutes became a Sunday night staple in Australian households. Over the years it has beaten off challenges from more than 100 shows on rival channels, including the best of British and American drama and sitcoms.
The most explosive segments of 60 Minutes accuse companies, government agencies, or organisations of massive deceit and of harming public welfare.
Correspondents, often in alliance with an ex-employee or group member, have confronted the Illinois Power Company, Audi Motors, the Worldwide Church of God, tobacco companies, Allied Chemical Corporation, the U.S. Army, adoption agencies and land development corporations.
Smaller entities and individuals, such as owners of fraudulent health spas, used car dealers, or clothing manufacturers, often put faces and names on compelling images of deceit.
The high stakes involved in such public confrontations led Herb Schmertz, former vice president of the Mobil Oil Corporation, to write a guide for corporate America instructing companies and individuals how to prepare and withstand an interview by 60 Minutes‘ correspondents.
But public figures still appear, seeking to enhance their position or rectify a situation. In doing so they risk unexpected changes in the direction of public opinion, as demonstrated by Ross Perot’s drop in approval ratings after raising questionable topics in his interview.
Critics, researchers, and the public continue to investigate the reasons behind the longevity of 60 Minutes as a popular culture phenomenon. The series’ timeliness, its bold stand on topics, its confrontations with specific individuals all provides audiences with the pleasure of knowing accountability does exist.