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‘Minutes’ midlife muddle

In-depth segs may be a casualty in venerable newsmag's hunt for younger auds

In one of the biggest journalistic “gets” of the season, “60 Minutes” producer Rome Hartman and correspondent Lesley Stahl landed the first post-IPO access to Google, the search engine that became a verb and created 1,000 more Silicon Valley millionaires.

But what did “60 Minutes” tell us Jan. 2 about Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the ubiquitous but strangely anonymous geeks who founded the company and are now jointly worth $12 billion?

They’re 31 and 32, respectively. Brin bought himself a new T-shirt, but still drives a “little Japanese car.” Page ducked the cameras altogether.

This quaint portrait of instant billionaires is nearly identical to the way the Yahoo founders were described in 1996 down to the description of the bird shit-spattered car.

Brin and Page had a right to be gun-shy — their last interview, which was published in Playboy during their SEC-mandated quiet period, nearly derailed their IPO.

But why would “60 Minutes” give the two founders of Google, no strangers to fawning press, a pass on their personal lives?

“We were very clear in all of our conversations that we wanted to do a business profile,” says Hartman, who began courting Google 1½ years ago. “This was not going to be, ‘Why don’t you show us around the house and the back yard.’ Frankly, the personal stories would have been fascinating, but that’s not what they wanted to do, and that’s not what I pitched them.”

The Google story — an unusual two-part business profile — encapsulates the challenge for the seminal newsmagazine in the post-Don Hewitt era: How to find a younger audience without losing the 59-year-olds.

Other segments have covered such topics as porn in the U.S., “The Echo Boomers,” a Steve Kroft report on people born between 1982 and 1995 and profiles on Jim Carrey, Jon Stewart, and 14-year-old golfer Michelle Wie.

On a story like Google, that challenge plays out with Stahl patiently explaining the meaning of “to google” to noncomputer users while trying to bring something new to those for whom “googling” is a way of life.

Jeff Fager, who took the helm of the show after “60 Minutes” founder Hewitt retired last year, says going long on Google was due, in part, to the kind of viewers it would attract. Young people use Google. And young people are who “60 Minutes” is after.

“It does say something to younger viewers — that ’60 Minutes’ is for everyone,” he says.

That perhaps also explains the story on Bollywood heartthrob Aishwarya Rai that followed it, and some contend, the reason “60 Minutes” bowed out of the tsunami story, which that night had been revealing its misery for a week.

According to the Nielsens, Fager has made some progress on his youth movement. Comparing the first season of the Fager era with the same period under Hewitt last year, overall viewership for the Sunday edition is roughly flat, but viewership in the younger, 18-34 demographic is up 5%.

The Wednesday edition is down significantly from last year, due to tough competition from ABC’s hit “Lost,” but ratings are down less in the younger 18-34 and 18-49 demographics.

In the wake of the “Memogate” scandal, critics are watching for a sign that “60 Minutes” has sacrificed its investigative vigor to go after younger demos.

Broadcast analyst Andrew Tyndall points out that while “Memogate” occurred on Fager’s watch, so did the Abu Ghraib scoop, which rocked the Bush administration last year. Fager, he says, may be the best producer in TV news and Bob Simon the best writer.

“The hard-news/soft-news mix isn’t the problem: It’s how to ease out (Andy) Rooney, (Mike) Wallace, and (Morley) Safer,” he says.

That may be true, but on that Sunday, Brin and Page weren’t the only ones let off easy.

In Simon’s heavily hyped interview with Rai, “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman,” he explained that she may have to break Indian taboos and give an onscreen kiss when she makes her Hollywood debut.

But when asked about her love life, Simon let her escape with “That’s for my autobiography,” which is a little like allowing Martha Stewart not to talk about prison.

Rai’s relationships with fellow Bollywood stars Vivek Oberoi and Salman Khan are well-publicized. Perhaps, like the “Google story,” “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman” needed a second part as well.