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The Rise And Fall of the TV Newsmagazine

From 60 Minutes to Dateline, how the news business became show business.
  • Photos: ABC, NBC, CBS
    Photos: ABC, NBC, CBS

    This Sunday, 60 Minutes begins its 55th season of broadcasting. And when I say “season,” I mean an actual 52-week stretch of shows, as opposed to those dinky semesters when Survivor (now in its “43rd season”) is in session. TV’s longest-running prime-time show is expected to pull its weight all year long, even during reruns, when 60 Minutes stars are called in from their summer vacations to read updated intros to each segment.

    Indeed, if there is a show that can truly be called a survivor, it’s “Sixty.” It is the last of a breed of old-school, journalistically serious shows in prime time. It turned a loss leader into a profit machine and kept printing money long after its imitators disappeared or went all-in with murder.

    Along the way, 60 Minutes taught us that news not only can be entertaining but, if you’re going to put in on commercial TV, it really ought to be entertaining. Its visionary first executive producer, Don Hewitt, was fond of saying, “Tell me a story.” Well, here’s how the story of the TV newsmagazine went down.

    The Pre-60 Era (1947-1968)

    News programming was not a network priority at the dawn of the TV age. Newspapers were ubiquitous, heavily resourced and authoritative. Plus, videotape didn’t exist at the time. News was captured on film, driven back to the studio, developed and edited for air, sometimes days after the fact. Most network newscasts in the early years consisted of an anchor reading off a typed script. Until 1963 they were only 15 minutes long.

    However, ABC did attempt something like a newsmagazine in the fall of 1952, and actually put it on in prime time against such competition as Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, Burns and Allen and Arthur Godfrey. It was called All-Star News, and probably was closer to the PBS NewsHour than 60 Minutes with its blend of headlines, interviews and documentary pieces. At any rate, it cost ABC a bundle and it didn’t last long. News was prestige; it was supposed to lose money. Just not that much money.

    60 Minutes, Mostly (1968-1979)

    Hewitt’s idea for a show was simplicity itself: a newsmagazine of the air, like Time or Look, featuring writerly scripts and compelling visuals. There would be profiles, investigations and features that stirred the emotions. And there would be a stopwatch, a kind of background nervous tick, a kind of assurance to the viewer that this would be a quick but essential read before CBS got back to the more important business of entertaining America.

    For its first few years 60 Minutes aired every other week and bumped along at the bottom of the Nielsen ratings, as CBS executives expected it would. Overall it was regarded as a bit of a nuisance. For more than a decade, whenever CBS’s Sunday-afternoon golf coverage ran overtime, whole segments of 60 Minutes were dropped and the show aired in most of the country in an “abbreviated edition,” so as not to disrupt the prime-time schedule. In a 1977 TV special, Chevy Chase mocked this practice with a sketch called “60 Seconds.” (You’ll have to trust me, it came on right after this.)

    In time, 60 Minutes found its voice — the forceful voice of a former cigarette pitchman and interviewer named Mike Wallace. Though he was there from that first broadcast in 1968 — and was well-known for his smoky interrogations on the old Night Beat show — Wallace really didn’t catch on until he started confronting small-time con artists and sticking microphones in their faces, demanding answers.

    By the early 1980s Wallace had mostly abandoned that shtick (local news teams were more than happy to pick up the slack) and was instead taking on bigger targets like the Ayatollah. Hewitt added Morley Safer, Ed Bradley and Harry Reasoner to his bench, and their complementary talents combined with some of the best producers in TV news to make 60 Minutes a don’t miss showcase. Even Andy Rooney’s innocuous commentaries managed to get viewers worked up.

    Sixty finished the 1979-1980 season as the #1 rated show in prime time. It would be the first of many ratings wins for CBS’s zirconium bauble turned Tiffany diamond.

    The Newsmag Boom (1980-2000)

    When Roone Arledge, creator of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and Monday Night Football, took over ABC’s news division in 1977, he quickly went to work building his own 60 Minutes lookalike. He even gave it a soundalike name: 20/20. Unfortunately, the show’s two ill-equipped hosts (one of them an Australian art critic) were panned in a disastrous debut on June 6, 1978. One week later, those guys were gone and viewers were greeted by reliable old Hugh Downs behind the desk instead. Barbara Walters later joined Downs as co-anchor. Though no ratings beast, 20/20 kept Friday nights respectable for ABC.

    And then, starting in the early 1990s and for reasons not entirely clear, newsmagazines became a thing — a big thing. 20/20 began to crack Nielsen’s Top 20 in the ratings. By then ABC had ordered up a second newsmagazine, PrimeTime Live, hosted by Sam and Diane — Donaldson and Sawyer, that is. CBS jumped in with another prime-time newsmag, 48 Hours, which followed a news story in the first two days that it was being reported (a format it later abandoned). Dateline NBC came along, and not even a a ridiculous fake explosion of a GM truck (supposedly to show it was a road hazard) was able to dent its momentum. Soon NBC added another Dateline, and another, and another — five hours per week, at one point, all in prime time, all making money.

    ABC ordered another hour of 20/20, and CBS executives — who by now were taking orders from Don Hewitt, not the other way around — launched a second hour of its flagship, titled 60 Minutes II so as not to tarnish the Sunday jewel. By 1998 no fewer than 12 hours of prime time were filled with newsmags.

    Turning To a Life of Crime (2000-present)

    The decline of newsmagazines coincided with the rise of demographics in audience research as advertisers sought younger viewers. Also, cable and online came into their own, pulling much of the news audience away from the networks. Slowly, NBC pulled Datelines off their schedule. 60 Minutes II falsely accused President Bush of shirking Vietnam duty, and when called on it, the show’s fate was sealed.

    Gradually, not only Dateline NBC but 48 Hours on CBS and 20/20 on ABC all discovered that crime pays. Forced to put something original in the low-rated weekend time slots, the networks leaned into crime, hard. Despite a dramatic decline in violent crime, the newsmags painted America as a hellscape of murderous husbands, missing teenagers, bodies found in trunks, and so on.

    Lamely justifying this pivot, the executive producer of Dateline cribbed from Don Hewitt: “I think it lends itself to storytelling. … You’ve got a confrontation, right and wrong, guilt or innocence, and a resolution, and there’s some suspense getting to that resolution.” Hey, whatever works. To this day all three of these newsmags remain on their networks’ schedules, though their luster is long gone. They’re regarded these days as the TV version of clickbait, shows that help the networks cover their nut, if not covering themselves in glory.

    These days, there are just three genuine newsmagazines left: 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Morning — the Parade of the airwaves, hosted by Jane Pauley — and HBO’s outstanding, not-to-be-missed monthly sports magazine Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. (Seriously, there are months when the only justification I have for continuing to pay my HBO bill is Real Sports.) In addition, Paramount+ has just launched a companion show, 60 Minutes+, bringing the best-known newsmagazine brand to streaming.

    How did 60 Minutes manage not only to survive, but remain one of the 10 highest-rated series in TV, year after year? In my view, it’s the show’s unmatched ability to take “dull but important” stories and make them anything but dull: our unstable electrical grid, the persistence of racism in the military, the Navy’s encounter with UFOs, and much more. After Hewitt retired, 60 Minutes became noticably more nimble at covering breaking news, with quick turnarounds on the Jan. 6 uprising and other stories. And then there are the features and profiles, which balance high-profile stars (especially NFL stars) with lesser-known personalities.

    Keep on ticking, Sixty. You were the first of your kind — and you’ll almost certainly be the last.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: 60 Minutes, CBS, 20/20, 48 Hours, 60 Minutes Plus, CBS Sunday Morning, Dateline NBC, PrimeTime Live, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Andy Rooney, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Don Hewitt, Hugh Downs, Mike Wallace, Sam Donaldson