Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Television Genius

Television--like the rest of the media--is notorious for its over-use of the term "genius." According to the talking heads, just about anyone with a slightly different (or better) idea is deserving of that accolade; never mind that few of these geniuses actually deserve the sobriquet, and many would be embarrassed to hear themselves described in such terms.

TV's fondness for proclaiming genius is also a bit ironic, since the medium has--by our count--produced relatively few of them. Here's a short list: Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, who pioneered the technology of television; Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the legendary NBC programmer who developed the Today and Tonight shows; Ted Turner, who turned a failing Atlanta UHF station into a cable empire, and Roger Ailes, who stood conventional wisdom on its ear and built two of the most successful cable channels in history, CNBC and the Fox News Channel.

Beyond that select group, we can think of only one other television pioneer who could be called a genius. He was the restless force behind innovations ranging from the TV news magazine; the "chain" projection system (which allowed the combination of diverse film and audio elements before videotape); on-scene coverage by the anchors of network news shows, and even something called the "aspect ratio," which allows projection of properly-sized graphics behind newscasters.

We refer, of course, to Don Hewitt, the legendary creator of 60 Minutes, the longest-running (and most profitable) news magazine in television history and the standard by which similar programs are still judged. Mr. Hewitt passed away today at his suburban New York home, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 86.

Hewitt arrived at CBS News in 1948, at the dawn of the television age. He had no previous experience in the medium, but that was hardly a disadvantage in those days. Most of the network's senior correspondents--including Edward R. Murrow--looked down on television as little more than a fad, preferring to remain in radio. Hewitt and other newcomers were free to experiment and innovate, creating many of the techniques still used today.

Not long after his arrival, Hewitt was installed as producer and director of "Douglas Edwards and the News," the forerunner to the current "CBS Evening News." Edwards assumed the anchor chair by default; none of the network's better-known reporters wanted the job. For the next 14 years, Edwards served as the face and voice of the newscast, while Don Hewitt was the driving force behind the scenes.

It was an odd pairing, to say the least. Mr. Edwards, a courtly, unfailingly polite Alabama native and the hyperknetic New Yorker, Don Hewitt. As the young producer tried to stretch the boundaries of broadcast news, Douglas Edwards generally went along with Hewitt's ideas, but even the first CBS anchor had his limits.

In one famous episode, recounted by CBS historian Gary Paul Gates, Hewitt and Edwards were at odds over a basic problem affecting early news programs. In the days before Teleprompters, newscasters had to frequently glance down at their scripts, breaking eye contact with the camera. It became a source of frustration for Mr. Hewitt, who proposed his own solution.

"I've got it," he announced one day, "We'll have Doug learn Braille." When the anchor refused, Hewitt found a compromise, putting the script on cue cards, held near the lens of the camera. Eventually, someone hit on the idea of scrolling magnified copy just above the camera, and the teleprompter was born.

Along with his duties on the Edwards newscast, Hewitt also directed Edward R. Murrow's legendary documentary series See It Now, and produced the first-ever televised presidential debate between JFK and Richard Nixon in 1960.

But Mr. Hewitt's career hit a tailspin in the early 1960s. NBC's evening news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley eclipsed Edwards in the ratings, resulting in new assignments for the CBS anchor and his production team. Mr. Edwards returned to CBS Radio (where he worked for another 26 years before retiring), while Hewitt ran the network's documentary unit.

Bored with that job, Don Hewitt had another stroke of genius. Instead of a single-subject documentary, why not adopt multiple, longer segments (similar to a newspaper feature article) to a single program? The result, of course, was 60 Minutes, which first aired in 1968 with Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace as the correspondents.

While the show has become the gold-standard for TV news magazines--and an enormous profit center for CBS--60 Minutes actually struggled for its first decade on the air. Bouncing from time slot to time slot, it was trounced in the ratings by entertainment shows. But in the mid-1970s, someone at CBS had a bright idea. Why not put the show on Sunday evenings, just after pro football? In a matter of weeks, 60 Minutes was in the Nielsen Top 10, and remained there for many years.

Hewitt remained in charge of the program through the 2003 season, then reluctantly stepped down. By some accounts, the 60 Minutes creator lost a power-play to Jeff Fager, who had launched a weeknight version of the news magazine. With Mr. Hewitt then in his early 80s, CBS wanted to transition to a younger executive producer who would (presumably) lead the show for years to come.

The decision was immediately questioned by many media executives. Not long after Fager took Hewitt's job, his spin-off program (60 Minutes II) was cancelled, the result of Dan Rather's segment on President Bush's Air National Guard service, a piece that was riddled with lies and inaccuracies.

In his later years, Mr. Hewitt was involved in the production of several documentaries and programs outside CBS. Until his death, he retained the title of "Executive Producer of CBS News," but his involvement in day-to-day operations ended when he left 60 Minutes.

Don Hewitt was both an original and a genius. Television could certainly use someone with his instincts, drive and flair right now, but the odds of that happening are practically nil. TV News was lucky enough to have one Don Hewitt; they won't see another.
ADDENDUM: While Mr. Hewitt deserves praise for his creativity and innovation, he was far from perfect, particularly in the political realm. Before the presidential candidate debate in 1960, Hewitt noticed that Richard Nixon's make-up was awful, but he never suggested that the GOP send their man back to the dressing room for a re-application. Thirty-two years later, Don Hewitt went out of his way to help another struggling candidate, coaching Bill Clinton before his memorable 60 Minutes appearance that saved his candidacy. In terms of fairness and impartiality, Mr. Hewitt apparently had his limits.


tfhr said...

I'm not going to make some sort of scathing remark about a man that just passed away but as the media chimes in with their generous praise of the deceased, as they typically do at a time like this, I'd just add that their entire industry died when editors, directors, producers, anchormen, and "reporters" abandoned objectivity some time ago and as a result they have failed to keep the public informed and in themselves, present a danger to democracy.

Marshall said...

You express an interest in the often misunderstood and misapplied label of "genius". I (highly) recommend the Malcom Gladwell book, Outliers, which gives us a better appreciation of why some folks succeed way beyond their peers.

Augurwell said...

Was 'Loony Tunes' TV?