Monday, May 22, 2006

Signing Off at CBS

Mike Wallace officially "retired" from 60 Minutes last night, 38 years after he helped inagurate the network news magazine format. Over the decades that followed, Wallace and "60 Minutes" have spawned a legion of imitators, but none have been quite as successful as Don Hewitt's pioneering format, or its legendary senior correspondent.

Appropriately, last night's installment of 60 Minutes was a tribute to Wallace, the first correspondent hired by Hewitt when he launched the show back in 1969. In those days, neither the producer nor Wallace were on the fast-track at CBS. Hewitt--one of the true innovators in television history--had been relegated to the documentary unit, after being dumped as executive producer of the CBS Evening News With Douglas Edwards in the early 1960s.

Wallace's career was also in something of a rut at the time. He lost his job as anchor of the network's morning news program, after it was moved into head-to-head competition with NBC's "Today." Making matters worse, Wallace was still viewed with some degree of suspicion in the House that Murrow Built, thanks to his previous stints as a celebrity talk show host, game show emcee, an appearance on Broadway (in the play Reclining Figure), and a lucrative gig as pitch-man for Parliment cigarettes. After the death of his son Peter in 1962, Wallace decided to devote his life to more serious pursuits, buying out his Parliment contract, and signing on with CBS News. But Wallace was hardly a "star" at the network in the late 1960s, one reason that he was available for the Hewitt's news magazine experiment.

Despite Wallace's presence, the program struggled in its early days, often finishing near the bottom of the ratings. The show didn't crack the Nielsen Top 20 until someone at CBS decided to move 60 Minutes to the 7 p.m. slot on Sunday evenings, immediately after the network's NFL broadcasts. 60 Minutes quickly climbed to the top of the ratings, becoming a showcase for Wallace's "interrogation" style of interviewing. The program also became the biggest cash cow at CBS, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.

In fact, Wallace was considered so instrumental to the program's success--and CBS's bottom line--that the network changed its retirement policy, the same policy that had helped push Walter Cronkite out of the anchor chair in 1981. While Cronkite's Evening News had been #1 in the ratings for more than a decade, it couldn't match the profits generated by 60 Minutes, so Wallace was allowed to remain on the broadcast. Besides, the network had to find a way to keep another 60 Minutes alum (Dan Rather) in the fold, so Cronkite was permitted to retire.

Twenty-five years later, Rather has returned to the broadcast, after leading the Evening News into the ratings cellar, and destroying "60 Minutes II" franchise with his fraudulent "docu-gate" report. However, Rather has been only an occasional contributor to 60 Minutes over the past year or so, and there are no indications that he will assume a more prominent role with Wallace's retirement. The broadcast has plenty of highly-paid correspondents who aren't exactly anxious to share the load with Rather, not to mention the Couric factor. The incoming anchor of the CBS Evening News is also a correspondent for 60 Minutes, so more exposure for "The Dan" would mean fewer stories for the network's 16 million dollar woman.

And that brings us to the latest rumors making the rounds at Black Rock, CBS's corporate headquarters. Dan Rather's current contract with the network expires in August. One version suggests that Rather won't be offered a new deal; in other words, he's out when the contract expires. The other version indicates that CBS is offering a bottom-dollar renewal deal, with no specified duties beyond an occasional piece for 60 Minutes. In broadcast circles, it's the kind of deal you offer in hopes that the performer will refuse and retire, or decline and go somewhere else.

As Mike Wallace completes his victory lamp, it appears that CBS is preparing a different kind of send-off for Dan Rather. Stick a fork in CBS, he appears to be done.

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