Post-election interview, big stories boost ratings

The TV news biz is in retreat, cutting down on programming hours, staff and ambition.

But while the weakened competition focuses on octuplet moms and elite call-girl rings, the truly big stories these days are on “60 Minutes,” which in its 41st season is riding the waves of war, financial crisis and Obama fever to stronger ratings.

Indeed, “60 Minutes” is up about 10% year-to-year in total viewers — this in a season in which most programs on broadcast TV have lost large chunks of audience.

Averaging about 15.5 million viewers an episode, the newsmag has ranked in primetime’s top 10 for the last nine straight weeks and is on pace to finish the season in the top 10 for the first time since 2000. This is a reversal of fortune for a show that had been steadily losing audience for more than a decade.By far, it’s been the show’s best season under the reign of executive producer Jeff Fager, who took over series creator Don Hewitt in 2004.

Staffers are loath to critique Hewitt, the architect who oversaw decades of ratings dominance by the newsmag. However, they concede that by the time the octogenarian left the broadcast in 2004, some of the program’s edge had began to slip.

While the end of Hewitt’s tenure was marked by segments that were often in the can for months before they aired, Fager’s crew often is still working on breaking stories right up until broadcast, staffers say.

Fager, they contend, has breathed new relevance into the program. And for his part, the exec producer says there are plenty of relevant stories to cover these days.

“There are so many big issues that have put the country in a place that is unusual and in some ways dire,” Fager says. “We have two foreign wars, the homes people live in now are undervalued and plummeting — so many events have come together at once that people want to find out about.”

Chiefly, he concedes, they’ve tuned in to see Barack Obama, who granted correspondent Steve Kroft considerable access starting way back in early 2007, just as the election was ramping up.

“We didn’t report on the election to do better ratings, but the fact is that Barack Obama has really helped our numbers,” Fager explains. “We did huge numbers on those nights.”

A post-election segment that ran Nov. 16, in which Kroft scored the first sit-down interview with the president-elect and soon-to-be first lady, was seen by about 24.5 million people, the largest audience for “60 Minutes” in more than a decade.

And the viewer reception to Kroft’s Obama segments has been so strong that “60 Minutes” decided to package 240 minutes of footage for their DVD release (Feb. 3) through CBS’ homevid division.

But other topical subjects have sparked the show, which began broadcasting in high-def this season.

An Oct. 5 episode, which featured Kroft effectively distilling the complexities of the banking crisis, was watched by 16.6 million viewers.

And on Feb. 8, Katie Couric’s interview with airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger netted 16.7 million viewers.

“Gets” like Sullenberger, who was offering his first media interview since safely bringing down a crippled U.S. Airways jet on the Hudson River, are no doubt partly the product of the program’s growing momentum.

But the access — and the improved ratings, for that matter — are also the result of decreased competition. There just aren’t as many other newsmags competing for audience and subject access as there was just a few years ago.

Not only did the core “60 Minutes” have to compete for stories with now-canceled offshoot “60 Minutes II” from 1999-2005, NBC’s “Dateline” used to be all over the sked, running as many as four nights a week, including head-to-head with “60 Minutes” on Sunday evening.

Amid the proliferation of newsmags, “60 Minutes'” annually faced huge audience attrition, including a loss of nearly 2 million viewers in the 1999-2000 season.

But news competition has significantly ebbed of late, with the Peacock cutting way back on “Dateline” and news divisions across the board — including at CBS — trimming back staff.

Meanwhile, “60 Minutes” has hunkered down on substantive investigative reporting, with Fager’s staff of 75 reporters (most of which are never seen on the air) gathering the kind of hard news that’s now very much in demand.

And while the interview with Sullenberger is the kind of instant-celebrity interview that its rivals trade in, compare it with “Dateline’s” latest big get: octuplet mom Nadya Suleman; or ABC’s “20/20,” which interviewed Ashley Dupre, the prostitute who ended Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial career.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure in the news business to go for the easier story, to go for celebrity,” Fager says. “But there’s already so much of that, we’re in overload. We went the other way. We’ve done fewer profiles of celebrities, and that’s paid off for us.”

Coinciding with all of this is the maturation of a “60 Minutes” regime that has now fully transitioned out of the Hewitt era.

The venerable class of elite correspondents who built this enduring brand are largely off the air now, with Harry Reasoner long gone, Ed Bradley passing on in 2006 and Mike Wallace retired.

Morley Safer remains, filing about 10 segments a year, half of what he used to do, and Andy Rooney continues to coda each broadcast.

But by and large, a newer generation of “60 Minutes” personalities has taken over, led by Kroft and Lesley Stahl, who both joined the broadcast in 1989.

Other workhorses, including Bob Simon and Scott Pelley, a former CBS News chief White House correspondent who joined the newsmag in 2003 from “60 Minutes II,” have also come into their own.

“Scott’s not Mike Wallace, but some of the interviews he’s done lately are as good as Mike Wallace’s,” says one CBS News insider.

Also kicking in about five segments a season are high-profile contributors Anderson Cooper and Couric.

Meanwhile, “60 Minutes” has also benefited from some savvy multiplatform promotion over the last several years. In addition to DVD releases, for example, the program signed a pact with Yahoo! in 2006 that makes its video segments widely accessible online.

“It’s a thriving place right now,” Fager says. “Part of it is the excitement of this year. Everybody’s really pumped up.”

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