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08.19.09

A Former Competitor on Don Hewitt's TV Legacy

As senior producer and then executive producer of newsmagazine upstart 20/20, Victor Neufeld was obsessed with Don Hewitt’s skill at rival 60 Minutes. With Hewitt’s death at 86, Neufeld sees his legacy in surprising spots.

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The passing of Don Hewitt, the original creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes, is sad. As many people in our profession have said, he was a legendary force and creative genius. But when I think about the many contributions he made and the brilliant insights he had, I also realize his legacy still lives all over the television landscape, in many surprising places.

For 20 years, I was the senior producer and then executive producer of 20/20. We were the second generation of newsmagazines, following in the shadow of the dominant 60 Minutes. As we developed our own style and personality, we were the young, scrappy Mets to the awe-inspiring Yankees that was Don Hewitt’s 60 Minutes. They had the swagger and the confidence that a powerhouse program deserved. Eventually, 20/20 became a distinctive franchise and a major ratings draw. Barbara Walters joined Hugh Downs and the rest, as they say, was history.

When the most controversial cable news anchors—even if you disagree with their point of view—show engagement, strong questioning, and insight, they’re part of Don’s legacy.

But early on, it was the allure of the success of 60 Minutes and the skill of Don Hewitt that became my personal obsession. As a young executive producer, I relied on our wonderful staff and my own gut instincts to run the program, but I watched 60 Minutes intently, studying the length and the order of pieces, the story selection, the writing, everything.

Sometimes, but rarely, 60 Minutes producers left CBS, and we tried to hire them. We welcomed them into our shop because we valued their talent, but also because could learn from them. I debriefed them like a CIA station chief debriefing captured Russian spies.

Back then, news segments were generally pretty generic, without much personality. But, as I learned from watching the program with compulsive competitive focus and talking to everyone I could, Don knew the value of strong, distinctive characters combined with powerful storytelling. Every story had to have a central character, with a compelling story to tell. They were captured in close-ups, the camera exposing their emotions, the fire in their eyes. Almost more important, there were powerful personalities in front of the camera, telling the stories.

The 60 Minutes correspondents were almost as unique and compelling as the stories. Don chose Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer—all singular, strong personas that he knew stood out with their charisma and intelligence. 20/20 eventually reached parity with 60 Minutes with its own journalism, correspondents, anchors, and distinctiveness.

And here’s the irony. Lots of people in our business now criticize cable news “stars” and “reality” programs today. But I believe that there is a strong Don Hewitt continuum at work here. When the most controversial cable news anchors—even if you disagree with their point of view—show engagement, strong questioning, and insight, they’re part of that legacy. “Reality” shows with powerful characters also touch the same nerve.

Television is a “personality-driven” medium. There is no way around it. Viewers are drawn to people that touch them, connect to them. Don knew that. If there is a story to tell with a strong narrative, quality journalism, and individuals make an effort to reach out to you with intelligence, style, and distinctiveness, that is the key to success. We have evolved, sometimes too far, but there is a unique legacy that exists with us today. And that is part of Don Hewitt’s brilliance.

Victor was executive producer of 20/20 for 15 years, starting in 1987. He then was the executive producer of The Early Show at CBS News, and later the executive producer of Paula Zahn Now at CNN. He is now a senior counselor at The Dilenschneider Group.