The Secret World Behind '60 Minutes'
In a rare behind-the-scenes visit with TV’s most revered news program, the inner workings of CBS' crown jewel are revealed. Says executive producer Jeff Fager: "We piss off some really important Hollywood types on a regular basis."
"It remains the primetime newsmagazine of record," says Paul Bogaards, executive vp at Alfred A. Knopf, who placed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on the show to support her controversial memoir Lean In. "It's not just the viewership, it's the kind of viewer that you are capturing." Sandberg's book shot to the top of best-seller lists upon its March 11 release. It has sold 285,000 copies and went back to press April 1. "We look at all kinds of analytics," he adds. "We know that the book segments on 60 Minutes drive results."
Subjects are given no control over how they are presented or what material makes it into the piece. "We don't make deals," says Stahl. The show preps thoroughly whether tailing a ruthless despot or A-list actor. "They are perfectionists," says Hugh Jackman, who dissolved into tears discussing his father's reaction to his mother's abandonment of the family during an interview with correspondent Scott Pelley that aired in December. "It was like shooting a movie, as they wanted to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end."
One obvious side effect of the effectiveness of the show's format -- with the correspondent-as-reporter model -- is that the storytellers are as recognizable as the luminaries they're shadowing. "Wherever I went with Anderson Cooper in my hometown [of Syosset, N.Y.], people were way more excited to see him than me," notes Knocked Up and This Is 40 filmmaker Judd Apatow, who was profiled in December.
His selection was part of a thoughtful process: With only about 100 stories a year on 31 broadcasts -- each season runs from September to May -- Fager and Owens are ever mindful of celebrities pushing their latest project. Listening to pitches from correspondents and producers (each correspondent works with a regular team of five to six producers whose job it is to pound the pavement for stories) consumes a big chunk of each day. But they also get directly lobbied by studios and agents.
"We don't really pay attention to the lobbying," says Fager. "It doesn't take on an added meaning. We still think of it as, what's going to make for an interesting story? We piss off some really important Hollywood types on a regular basis, I'm sure." (In fact, Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS Corp., might be the only place that doesn't lobby them; the Chinese wall is sacrosanct.)
The show remains a coveted perch for luminaries, yet its signature remains the deeply reported pieces that can take months -- even years -- to come together. Pelley's award-winning hourlong piece about an Iowa National Guard battalion deployed to Iraq was shot over 18 months. "We followed them all the way from the moment they got the phone call in the cornfield, through their training, through their experience in Iraq and all the way home," says Pelley.
Fager says that even while sparing no cost, 60 Minutes -- and the news division overall -- is profitable. This despite the fact that the audience, with a median age of 60, is deemed too ancient to justify charging advertisers a premium, as the heavy rotation of commercials for erectile dysfunction underscore. "The TV-news audience is old," concedes Fager. "But 60 Minutes is, in many households, a family appointment." And it pulls in close to 4 million viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic -- that's more than Parks and Recreation, The Good Wife, The Mindy Project and all of the broadcast late-night shows. 60 Minutes booked $123 million in ad revenue in 2012, up from $115 million the year earlier, according to Kantar Media. (And the show has eased into the digital age with the web extension "Overtime" and an iPad app, while the monthly Showtime spinoff 60 Minutes Sports launched in January.)
The news division under Fager has grafted the 60 Minutes DNA onto daily broadcasts including its heretofore troubled morning show, which was rechristened CBS This Morning in January 2012, and especially the CBS Evening News, where there is much cross pollination with Pelley in the anchor chair.
Fager assures that costly foreign coverage will remain integral to 60 Minutes and a priority at the news division overall. "I can promise you that when you see less international reporting in other parts of broadcast news, it's because of the expense," he says. "And that's because they've deemed the audience uninterested. If we think it's important, the onus is on us to make it as interesting as we can. We don't say the audience is turned off by the war in Afghanistan. Screw that."
Nonetheless, high-ticket foreign stories in Afghanistan, Syria and China are offset by cheaper domestic pieces. For instance, interviews with the president at the White House pack a ratings punch without the steep price tag. Kroft's 2008 sit-down with then newly elected President Obama and Michelle Obama at the Chicago Ritz-Carlton 10 days after the election garnered more than 25 million viewers -- at the time, the show's biggest audience in nine years.
60 Minutes has had exactly two executive producers in 45 years: Hewitt, who died in 2009, and Fager. The latter has been at the broadcast for more than 25 years; he joined CBS News in 1982 as a segment producer and worked his way up to executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and later 60 Minutes II. A talented storyteller with a hard-news bent, he became Hewitt's heir apparent long before the official passing of the baton -- resisted by Hewitt -- in 2004, when Fager was 49 and Hewitt was 81. At the time, Safer, an amateur artist, presented Fager with a pointed welcome memento that still sits on a shelf in Fager's 60 Minutes office. It is a sculpture of two naked Greco-Roman wrestlers. "One is grabbing the other by a part of the anatomy that would not be considered fair," says Safer, laughing. The plaque on the pedestal reads, "The Tranquil Transition."