’60 Minutes’ plans for life after the last Don

Hewitt protégé Fager will take skein's reins in the fall

There’s a joke going round that “60 Minutes” will finally swap its old-style stopwatch for a digital clock when Don Hewitt steps down as exec producer early next month.

“It’s not a very funny joke, and it’s not going to happen,” says Josh Howard, Hewitt’s No. 1, who is soon off to run “60 Minutes II.”

In an era when primetime mags often resemble anything but news, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” is an oasis fiercely guarded by Hewitt and operated by his own homegrown rules.The big question: Could the show eventually lose its way once Hewitt leaves the show he founded 36 years ago? And would advertisers and viewers follow suit? After all, most all other newsies think nothing of devoting their energies to entertainment pieces of all sorts, giving short shrift to more serious political affairs. (NBC News’ “Dateline” just devoted two hours to the final days of “Friends.”) Chances are good that viewers won’t notice much difference when the fall season launches with Jeff Fager in charge of “60.” Fager is the Hewitt protege who was dispatched several years ago to launch “60 Minutes II.”

“There won’t be any dramatic change. I want to be more ’60 Minutes’ than ’60 Minutes,’ ” Fager says. “I’m interested in the journalism we stand for. ’60 II’ is proof of that.”

“60 II” has in fact been no pansy, either in the ratings or among the critics. On May 5, the newsmag broke one of the biggest stories of the year when first airing the pictures of the Iraqi prisoners abused and tortured by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison.

“Other primetime newsmagazines are in another kind of work. It’s a kind of infotainment,” says Fager, a much gentler version of Hewitt, but with an equally strong will.

But there are bound to be variations between Hewitt’s “60” and Fager’s “60,” mainly because Fager is from a different generation with a different perspective.

“Our tastes are slightly different, and that will show up on the broadcast,” Fager says.

At “60 II,” Fager has been willing to turn around a story more quickly than has Hewitt, and it’s likely he’ll bring that same willingness to “60.”

But the basic Hewitt ground rules won’t change, Fager says.

There remains a comforting timelessness about many “60 Minutes” stories, such as a segment airing this month on Michael D’Antonio’s book, “The State Boys Rebellion.” The story focused on a government program that locked poor and uneducated children into mental institutions from the early 1900s through the 1970s.

The May 2 broadcast captured the interest of Steven Spielberg, with DreamWorks quickly buying rights to the Simon & Schuster book for an undisclosed six figure sum.

“Story selection comes from years of experience. I am the least intellectual person I know. I live by my fingertips, by my guts,” Hewitt says.

Hewitt likes to boast that he’s the luckiest man in the world. He may have a point.

The veteran broadcaster couldn’t be going out on a more well-sung note. “60 Minutes” is up in the ratings this season over last year, as well as continuing to easily beat the competish.

Also this season, newsmag has nabbed several key interviews, including a sit-down with former Bush administration official Richard Clarke and, earlier, with embattled pop star Michael Jackson.

On May 18, Hewitt will be honored during a primetime special on CBS. When he officially steps down from the show in early June, he’ll remain at CBS News as a senior producer, moving downstairs to Bryant Gumbel’s office, fondly referred to as Bryant Park.

“I’m going to be here until I go gaga. And if they fuck it up, I’ll be right here,” Hewitt says.

Fager says he expects to hear Hewitt’s voice in his head for a long time to come — both literally and figuratively.

“He’ll be there bugging me if he doesn’t like something,” Fager says. “There is a little bit of Don in every one of us. Every decision you make, you sort of think of him.”

Never in the history of network news has there been such a methodically plotted transition. When Fager takes over “60” proper, Howard will make the move to “60 II.”

Stabilizing the transition will be the continuing presence of longtime “60 Minutes” correspondents Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl and Steve Kroft. Both Wallace and Safer have cut back their skeds. A new part-time face at “60” is “60 II” correspondent Scott Pelley.