HEWITT: A CHANCE TO READ HIM NOW

Times Staff Writer

He sat in the flower-filled dining patio at the Beverly Hills Hotel, occasionally pausing in mid-interview to greet passing pals. Pals like songwriter Sammy Cahn. And Dave Tebet, NBC's former chief talent-handler. And the sunglassed matron who said:

"Is that you, Don? I saw you on Regis Philbin."

Don Hewitt clearly enjoyed this frangipani forum, even though the interview concerned matters weightier than Regis Philbin. Matters such as news documentaries, TV critics and his October offer to buy CBS News, his employer since 1948.

But then, this was Tinseltown, and Hewitt really was here to tout "Minute by Minute," his new book of reminiscences about and excerpts of interviews from CBS News' high-rated "60 Minutes," which he created in 1968 and of which he still is executive producer.

It should be noted that his publisher, Random House, was paying for the tour, not CBS. A good thing, considering CBS' costly victory over Ted Turner's takeover bid. That caused much budget-cutting and led to company-wide firings--including 74 at CBS News.

Hewitt loves to say that as a kid he couldn't decide whether to be Julian Marsh, the whizbang Broadway producer in "42nd Street," or Hildy Johnson, the blow-the-lid-off-this-town newshawk of "Front Page"--and that thanks to TV, he later found he could be both.

Traditionalists may wince. But that is Hewitt's manner, even though his early TV work includes producing "The CBS Evening News" from 1961 to 1964. Before that, he directed the "See It Now" reports of Edward R. Murrow, that revered CBS newsman who, unlike Hewitt, never was known for flamboyance or wahoo.

The New York-born producer, who recently turned 63, remains an oratorical carnival. He delights in the unconventional thought, the outrageous quote. His journalist's philosophy is that the only crime worse than inaccuracy is to be boring.

For this reason he pooh-poohs most documentaries and the TV critics who "salivate" over them. Most documentaries are boring, he says. Be they "good, bad or indifferent," he says, they usually get low ratings, which is why there are so few of them now:

"If television thought there was an appetite out there for documentaries, you know--just as sure as God made little roof antennas--that you'd be up to here in documentaries."

Then why so many in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s?

He smiles. "Because nobody in those days looked at them as closely as I did, and said there's a way to inform the America people better, to reach more people with more information, than running a documentary every once in a while."

His way, of course, is the punchy, to-the-point assortment of four or so weekly stories aired on "60 Minutes," reported by Mike Wallace, Morely Safer, Harry Reasoner, Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer, and generally assembled by what some say are 60 producers.

Aired on Sunday nights, the program now is consistently in the Nielsen Top 10 list, and reportedly earns CBS $70 million annually (Hewitt says he can neither confirm nor deny the figure, but "I've heard it so often that it must be true").

Such was not the case when "60 Minutes" struggled on the air one Tuesday in September, 1968, as a biweekly venture co-anchored by Wallace and Reasoner. Its ratings were tiny. And a critic from Variety, the show-biz bible, had this to say of its debut:

"The stories were dated and the magazine format, lifted from print, pretentious. There were too many producers with too little imagination."

Which leads us to TV critics, most of whom Hewitt--and many in TV news--regards as geeks. Many critics review both entertainment and news programs. Hewitt does not think this is so hot an idea. But he assigns part of the blame to the networks.

He once couldn't understand, he says, " why print guys review us as if we are 'Laverne and Shirley' and 'Family Ties' and 'The Dukes of Hazzard.' But I've finally figured out why: we've got press agents. I think that's disgusting."

Such is the show-biz aspect of network news. Network news divisions have had press agents since the halcyon days of radio, both to publicize programs, anchors and correspondents, and to field questions and requests for interviews from print folk.

Hewitt has been cheerfully shameless in his off-duty pursuit of publicity for his new book. In one day there were appearances on the "CBS Morning News" and Phil Donahue's syndicated talk show, followed by a swell party that night at the glittering Tavern on the Green, an eatery near Central Park.

But he pronounces himself a foe of network tub-thumping for network anchors, correspondents, programs and even producers.

Says he: "You can't have a press department that is out flacking, and then ask, 'Why do you treat us like we're a bunch of stars and not news guys?' " If he ran TV, he adds, "I wouldn't have a press department for a news division."

Which leads us to Hewitt's much-publicized offer to buy and run CBS News, to which the CBS hierarchy firmly said no. The offer was widely viewed as a sign of internal dissatisfaction by Hewitt, anchorman Dan Rather and other CBS News heavies at the way then-CBS News President Ed Joyce was running things.

(Joyce was removed and reassigned in early December, succeeded by the man he had succeeded in 1983, Van Gordon Sauter.)

Hewitt denies that his inquiry stemmed from innate restlessness, or that he had sought the scalps of Joyce and Sauter at the same time he popped the question.

He says he made the offer because, after the takeover bid by Turner, who owns Cable News Network, he worried about other corporate raiders trying to buy CBS. He feared what might happen to CBS News and its proud tradition should those raiders ever succeed.

He pondered the notion of buying CBS News one day when he looked at the building housing Victor Potamkin's Cadillac dealership, located on West 57th Street right across the street from his CBS office in New York:

"I thought, 'Geez, you put a coat of paint on Potamkim's garage, you rent it and put a (satellite) dish on the roof . . . and you're in business.' Now, anything Ted Turner can do, I can do better. I know that. Ted Turner can put together a news operation.

"Now, what do I have to have that Ted Turner doesn't have? I've got to have names." He had names. Rather. Wallace. Morely Safer. Bill Moyers. Diane Sawyer. All, he says, were with him in his offer for CBS News because "we all feel very protective about it. It's kind of our home."

He professes not to know how much CBS News would cost, but had it been for sale, "the money was there. I cannot tell you where it was, but it was there." Had CBS Inc. said yes. he adds, the new CBS News Co. would have remained exclusive to CBS affiliates.

The now-widespread use of satellites to send and receive news programs was a key factor in his inquiry.

"Satellites have changed everything," he says, and "now it is not out of the realm of possibility" that someday the top network anchors and correspondents "will get the capital to open their own news division."

(They may already have it. Rather and NBC's Tom Brokaw are said to earn in excess of a $1 million per, with Wallace and ABC's Peter Jennings not far behind.)

"And it is not out of the realm of possibility that 300 stations would take your service the next day," Hewitt says, meaning a service staffed with well-known anchors and correspondents.

"Think about CNN. CNN is very good. But they don't have any big names. OK. You start a CNN with the Rathers, the Brokaws, the Jenningses, the Diane Sawyers, and right away, boy, they are a serious threat."

In his opinion, what any network really has going for it is its news division. He cites the dark days of the '70s when ABC was soaring with its high-rated entertainment fare: "One thing kept our stations from defecting to ABC. Know what it was?

"Walter Cronkite."

CBS Broadcast Group President Gene F. Janskowski has said he didn't think Hewitt was all that serious when the producer asked about buying CBS News.

"I was serious," Hewitt says. "Sure I was. Why not?"

It is probable that none of these high-level dealings or even "60 Minutes" would have come to pass had not a pal of Hewitt urged him in 1948 to look at a newfangled TV news operation that CBS was running in a roof-top office at Grand Central Station.

Before that, Hewitt had been a print man--for the Associated Press in Memphis before World War II, as a "Stars and Stripes" merchant marine reporter during the war, and as an employee of Acme Newspictures after the war.

"I think I could have been moderately successful in the newspaper business," he says when asked why he didn't stay in it. "I don't know. I wouldn't have had as much fun. And I wouldn't have gotten the satisfaction I've had in television."

He grins. "Try it. It's fun."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°