25 Years, 60 Minutes at a Time for CBS’s Jeff Fager

By A.J. Katz 

Twenty Peabody Awards, 12 du Ponts, 145 Emmys and a half century later CBS’s 60 Minutes is still ticking.

“The onus is on us to make each broadcast as interesting as we possibly can,” longtime 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager told TVNewser last week. “I think most of the time, we do that.”

Fager has worked on the show for 25 years, and has penned a history of the program. Fifty Years of 60 Minutes: The Inside Story of Television’s Most Influential Broadcast is out today.

Here Fager tells us the secret to the success of this Top 10 show now in its 50th season.

TVNewser: How can you continue to make 60 Minutes “appointment television” in this increasingly fragmented media landscape?

Fager: I think this year is an example. We take things one Sunday at a time, and we have seen a particularly good start to this season, regardless of it being the 50th season. The opioid story and the Las Vegas police officers story, and before that, Steve Bannon with Charlie Rose. I think that’s how we do it. We try our best to do stories that matter. We want to do stories that are current, and we want to do stories that are important. I think there’s a real hunger in America for that kind of reporting in prime time, and I think the audience every week shows that. It’s amazing to me that in this fractured environment, so many millions of people are still making their appointment to watch us Sunday nights at 7 p.m.

TVNewser: Do you have a strategy for keeping younger news consumers engaged with 60 Minutes?

Fager: I think our stories appeal to viewers of all ages, actually. That’s the way we really believe in doing it. We’re never going to do a story to appeal to one particular age group. That goes against our principles. But with that said, we are very aware that a 60 Minutes appointment isn’t necessarily going to be made by people under 30. On that front, we are fortunate that our stories work very well on a mobile device. Our stories are often 14, 15 minutes long, which I think is sort of a perfect amount of time for people who might be on a plane or train or who maybe just want to see a story for that amount of time. I think we’re fortunate that way, and I’m very optimistic about our digital future as well.

TVNewser: It’s hasn’t all been smooth sailing for 60 Minutes. There was the Dan Rather / 60 Minutes II saga. Then, Lara Logan-Benghazi.

Fager: Over 50 years, we have made mistakes, and in journalism, you’re going to make mistakes. One of the things we try to do is to work really hard at figuring out what went wrong and owning up to it as quickly as we can with the viewer. They don’t expect we’re going to be perfect, but when you make a mistake that is prominent, those are hard times. It has an impact on the whole staff. It takes time, and we come back one story at a time. The tobacco story, for example, was a devastating period for us. It’s a lesson that we learn when there’s a big one, say every 10 years. You better own up to that mistake, and help the viewer understand how it happened. That’s what we’ve done almost all of the time. 

TVNewser: Talk about Scott Pelley now working exclusively as a 60 Minutes correspondent.

Fager: Scott [Pelley] is such an important part of the broadcast, and he was still while he was [CBS Evening News] anchor. I love having him 100 percent dedicated to us, and he does too. This is the line of work that he loves, and he’s so darn good at it. It’s a boost for us, there’s no doubt about it. He’s turning in excellent stories one after the other.

TVNewser: Name a few stories from over the years that you’re most proud of.

Fager: Let’s start with last Sunday (Oct. 15)! That’s as good as it gets. Our collaboration with the Washington Post on the opioid story, and the DEA being hobbled by Congress. I think that makes us as proud as just about anything we’ve done over 50 years. It’s that kind of investigative reporting that we measure ourselves against. We are as good as our best investigative stories. There’s an enormous amount of pride on this floor about that story.

Also, I think you can go over a lot of the big interviews we’ve done. Charlie Rose just this year with [Steve] Bannon. Also, Charlie with [Vladimir] Putin. There’s the Abu Ghraib story. Also, there have been so many interviews that Steve Kroft did that were challenging with presidents. I think that it is hard for me to come up with a short list of my favorites or the most important because I think every year there have been a handful of stories that have made a mark, and have had an impact. I think that’s what we look for. We also like to have fun. We love adventures, and that’s an important part of our history. We love to do meaningful profiles. So, it’s a long list and it’s hard to keep it short.