80-year-old Hewitt to make way for Fager in June '04

NEW YORK — “60 Minutes” creator and executive producer Don Hewitt announced Monday that he will step down in 18 months, putting to an end months of speculation about his future with CBS.

“60 Minutes II” exec producer Jeff Fager will succeed him in June 2004. CBS has not yet named Fager’s successor.

The succession announcement follows much media angst about Hewitt’s future at the newsmag, which has slipped out of Nielsen’s top 10 in recent years but still remains a major moneymaker for the Eye thanks to its upscale aud: The program still clears an estimated $20 million a year.

While the 80-year-old recently told CNN’s Larry King that “I want to die at my desk,” there has been much ink spilled on possible tensions between him and management, hinting that the program’s anchors and sensibilities were skewing toward older auds.

As negotiations for succession began last fall, Hewitt seemed to be digging in his heels, insisting publicly that he wouldn’t hand over the reigns and would never take on an emeritus position at the net.

At the same time, CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward seemed to be looking for a peaceful transition of power and trying to avoid a high-profile dust-up with one of the network’s legendary names.

The announcement of what seems a peaceful transition is a feather in the cap of news division prexy Andrew Heyward, who defused the potentially combustible departure.

Insiders speculate that Heyward offered Hewitt financial incentives to stay on, but no formal details of the deal were discussed.

In his upcoming capacity as an executive producer at the network, Hewitt says one of his roles will be to try to find news programming for younger auds to identify with.

In its 35-year run, Hewitt estimates that “60 Minutes” has made $2 billion for CBS, but he did say that it would be extremely difficult to start up a similar venture in this era. “The economics of broadcasting have changed drastically,” he said, adding that while there was nothing wrong with celebrity interviews, it was difficult to find stars compelling enough for his program.

Hewitt, whose tone Monday didn’t betray any indication of bitterness, said he didn’t feel any heat from management to improve younger demos.

Fager, who is 48, vows that he will not make any drastic changes. “They difference between us isn’t that great. We share the same values.”

Issues of demos don’t seem to be on the forefront of his agenda, either. “We don’t want to be chasing one demo at the expense of another,” he said.

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