The resurgence of 60 Minutes

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All news programs have seen increased viewership amid the coronavirus crisis — but none can compare to the recent dominance of CBS’s venerable Sunday night newsmagazine, “60 Minutes.”

The program tops broadcast network ratings charts, breaks news with exclusives, and creates headlines of its own by sparking angry tweets from the commander-in-chief. This has been a new golden age for a program in its 52nd season on-air.

As Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post points out, “60 Minutes” has had to overcome severe internal challenges in its climb back up to the journalistic summit; it has earned the renewed attention. But there’s another reason “60 Minutes” stands out in the TV landscape: It stands alone.

At one point, in the 1990s, network television was flooded with primetime newsmagazines, all working hard to compete with “60” (as it’s known among TV news types), always the gold-medal champion others hoped to beat. News obsessives and ’90s nostalgia buffs may remember “Eye to Eye with Connie Chung” (CBS), “Primetime Live” (ABC), “Turning Point” (ABC), and “Now,” (NBC), as well as a second edition of “60 Minutes” and — by 1999 — five nights of the show I worked on, “Dateline NBC.”

Each show did its share of investigative reporting and international stories. Ratings were dependably strong, a rare and welcome gift to network programmers. But then a few things changed.

For decades, TV networks could not own the programming they aired because of FCC rules called “Fin-Syn.” Regulators didn’t want networks to have too much power and, thus, mandated that they buy programs from outside producers. The only primetime shows they could own were newsmagazines, produced by their news divisions. That made a successful magazine show uniquely profitable. But, in 1993, those rules were eliminated. Over the next several years, the television business adapted, and newsmagazines became less financially prized.

At the same time, reality TV mushroomed. It’s cheaper than news and easier for network programmers to oversee and control. One by one, unscripted shows took over time slots occupied by primetime news.

Then, out of nowhere, viewers discovered an intense interest in true crime. This was soon irresistible to network news divisions.

Magazine Investigations are time-consuming and painstaking, involving large staffs of reporters and producers — especially if you want to get something on the air quickly, as “60 Minutes” has done in response to the pandemic. Network lawyers pore over every word and image before anything goes on air. Of course, that still doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sued by the angry object of your investigation — lawsuits that can drag on for years at the cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

True crime — now nearly the sole focus of “Dateline,” “20/20” and “48 Hours” — presents few of those challenges. Reporters and producers dive into a case once the crime has finished going through the court system, so there’s less risk and waste: Everyone knows how things will turn out before one frame of video is shot. And, to be honest, it’s often really good storytelling and fun to watch: Viewers always like a smart whodunit where justice wins out. Ratings for “Dateline” remain solid, and the show’s correspondents — led by Keith Morrison and Josh Mankiewicz — have reached something close to matinee-idol status among devoted fans.

But that leaves “60 Minutes” with solitary ownership on a regular basis of several important primetime journalistic lanes, including investigations, newsmaker interviews and international events that resonate at home.

We live in exceptionally tumultuous times. As “60” executive producer Bill Owens told Sullivan, “it’s been a target-rich environment.” Enough targets, certainly, for other newsmagazines to enter the fray and, once again, offer “60 Minutes” a little healthy weekly competition.

That won’t happen — but maybe there’s a silver-lining here: Ten million people or more rely on “60 Minutes” each Sunday because it offers content that is now singular and uncommon in broadcast primetime. Those kinds of numbers will ensure that this one program, at least, will keep going into season 53 next fall, and hopefully far beyond.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags 20/20 60 Minutes Bill Owens CBS Coronavirus COVID-19 Dateline NBC Margaret Sullivan News magazine Television news

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