Don Hewitt, a longtime CBS News producer and the creator of “60 Minutes,” died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday at his home in Bridgehampton, New York. He was 86.
Hewitt began his career during television’s infancy, and devoted most of his life to broadcast journalism. As The New York Times noted, Hewitt served as “a living bridge–from the birth of television journalism in the long shadow of radio, through its golden-age as an unrivaled fixture in dens and family rooms, to its middle-age present, under siege from the Internet.”
He directed the first network television newscast in 1948, and shepherded the careers of such TV news luminaries as Edward S. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Dan Rather, Morley Safer, Diane Sawyer, Andy Rooney, and Meredith Viera.
He witnessed the power of television on the American political machine, at the first televised conventions and presidential debates, and, most famously, the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Nixon rejected Hewitt’s advice to wear makeup during the broadcast, and many cite Nixon’s sickly demeanor in front of 70 million American viewers as a turning point in the campaign.
Hewitt’s greatest achievement was the creation of “60 Minutes,” the first program of its kind. The show sought to combine serious topical reporting with the pacing of an entertainment show. Unlike typical hour-long news shows, Hewitt divided “60 Minutes” into three segments. The decision allowed the show to cover a range of topics, hold the attention of viewers, and created the news magazine genre as it exists today. When Hewitt proposed the show to executives, he called it a “Life magazine of the air.”
“60 Minutes” was in the Top 10 for 13 seasons, and at its peak in 1979-1980, it was seen in an estimated 28 million homes each Sunday, according to Nielsen Media Research. “I consider myself a guy who married ‘show biz’ and ‘news biz,'” Hewitt once said.
Even to the very end of his life, Hewitt was constantly considering a way to improve the news. In a 2008 interview, he suggested remaking “CBS Evening News” to include more local reporting: “Why don’t you add 200 other anchors at local stations, so during the broadcast you cut away, you come to Seattle for a great anchorperson in Seattle, talking about what is of interest for a Seattle audience… They’re very good, the local anchors are good… The local anchors are stars in their town, so you find a couple local anchors in Seattle who are just great… You build an audience that way.”