The first few minutes of this Sunday’s season premiere of “60 Minutes” offer a glimpse of some of the underlying tensions at the venerable television newsmagazine.
Along with longtime correspondents Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl and Morley Safer, the opening segment will feature another face -- that of former CBS anchor Dan Rather, who joined the show after “60 Minutes Wednesday” was canceled this spring. Veteran broadcaster Mike Wallace, who has opened the program since its 1968 debut, will be heard instead in a voice-over at the close of the introduction.
Who appears first in the opening segment may seem like a minor detail, but the initial lineup is wrought with enormous symbolism for the staff of the show, which has long been the network’s most successful and stable news program.
The arrival of Rather -- who planned to continue reporting for “60 Minutes Wednesday” after leaving the anchor desk in March until CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves canceled the weekday broadcast -- has forced producers into a juggling act as they try to accommodate the glut of big-name reporters.
The prospect of nine correspondents competing to get on a show that typically features only three stories a week has caused some internal consternation among the program’s old guard, who fret they won’t get as much airtime as before.
“I think nine people is an awful lot of people, given we started with two,” said Safer, who joined the broadcast in 1970. “I feel more crowded.... I just hope the flight’s not overbooked.”
Rather was on assignment and could not be reached for comment. But executive producer Jeff Fager said he was confident that the competition would merely increase the quality of the broadcast.
“I think there’s some anxiety, but I don’t think it’s unhealthy,” Fager said. “More people make it a little more tense at times, but I think it benefits the viewer. Getting on the air depends on how good your story is.”
Waiting his turn among a crowded roster represents a change for Rather, who served as the face of the “CBS Evening News” for 24 years. Although the former anchor seems to be relishing his return to reporting, Fager said, “I think it’s hard to leave the anchor chair. That takes an adjustment.”
Rather, who is expected to do about 10 stories this season, does not have a piece in Sunday’s premiere, and Fager said it remains unclear when his first segment will air. The former anchor might not be featured in the opening segment every week, either. His inclusion in the introduction of the premiere show was “out of respect,” Fager said, noting that Rather was one of the first “60 Minutes” correspondents in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Wallace -- whose gravelly voice has long been the trademark of “60 Minutes” -- will play a smaller role on the program with fewer stories this year. Correspondents Bob Simon and Scott Pelley will each do about 10 pieces, and Lara Logan will contribute four.
“We are moving into a different era,” Fager said.
That change has not come easily. CBS News employees familiar with the internal dynamics say the situation has frayed nerves among the staff and led to heated confrontations between the correspondents and producers in the days leading up to the season premiere. At a party Wednesday night held at an upscale Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side to celebrate the new season, speculation about the jockeying among the correspondents dominated the conversations, according to those in attendance.
Much of the buzz was about an Associated Press story that had just moved across the wires. In it, Fager was quoted as saying that the 87-year-old Wallace sometimes “can’t remember what he had for breakfast, but he can still pin someone down on an interview.”
On Thursday, Wallace called Fager’s comment “thoughtless and careless.”
“For Jeff to say that asinine thing that he said is beyond my comprehension,” Wallace said in an interview.
In a separate interview, Fager apologized for the remark, saying it was “tongue in cheek.”
But his comment illuminated internal tensions that already threaten to disrupt the stability of the broadcast, which is the most successful offering of the news division. In the last six weeks, even in repeats, “60 Minutes” was ranked among the top 10 programs on the air, according to Nielsen Media Research.
This Sunday’s broadcast features Stahl interviewing Roy Hallums, an American held hostage for 10 months in Iraq, while Kroft reports on the search for Osama bin Laden and Bradley profiles New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.