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As it opens its 50th season Sept. 24, 60 Minutes executives are hoping that enlisting Oprah Winfrey as a contributor will help the newsmagazine continue to stand out in a crowded Sunday night television landscape. “She wants to do stories with an impact,” says executive producer Jeff Fager. “And that’s what’s going to work here.”
Winfrey’s first segment will examine the deep political divisions in the country in part through a panel made up of ideologically opposed Americans. It is similar to a feature Winfrey did in O Magazine in February, for which she brought together 10 women at a diner in Maspeth, New York — half of them Donald Trump supporters, half Hillary Clinton supporters.
But Winfrey, 63, is no bystander in the political arena. Unlike the full-time correspondent corps at 60 Minutes, her views are well known. The mogul stumped for Barack Obama and in 2016 supported Hillary Clinton. Fager, though, says he’s not concerned that Winfrey’s political identity will alienate some viewers. “We are known for fairness,” he says, “and I believe people will see that on the air with her.”
In fact, Fager tried to recruit Winfrey five years ago, when she was in the throes of a rocky launch of her OWN cable network. “She was too distracted to even consider it,” he says. This time, Winfrey was open to the offer, and was encouraged by freinds. When she and friend Gayle King were on David Geffen’s yacht this summer, Geffen called CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves to communicate Winfrey’s interest.
If the move is a reinvention of sorts for Winfrey, it also gives her an enormous platform. 60 Minutes remains TV’s most watched newsmagazine, with nearly 13 million viewers a week last season. The season premiere also will include a Scott Pelley piece about Hurricane Harvey and Lesley Stahl interviewing Sen. John McCain about his brain tumor diagnosis.
Winfrey is not the first contributor 60 Minutes has employed; Wynton Marsalis also has previously filled that role. But the show has endured a thinning of its full-time correspondent ranks with the passing last year of Morley Safer, who had already scaled back, and the untimely death in 2015 of Bob Simon. And Pelley left the CBS Evening News in part so he could return to 60 Minutes full-time this season.
Her 60 Minutes debut echoes Winfrey’s talk show in that it aims to elevate and unite. That’s not to say that she won’t later be deployed in her capacity as a deft celebrity interviewer known for eliciting revealing nuggets from her subjects. “God knows, everybody has come out of the woodwork to say, ‘Can I do a 60 Minutes story with Oprah?’ I couldn’t believe how many calls we got [from] people who are typically reluctant to do something and wanted to do Oprah,” says Fager with a laugh, adding, “We’re not looking for soft from her; we’re looking for substance.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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