From Opioid Report to Oprah Winfrey, ‘60 Minutes’ Is Having a Moment

Steve Bannon 60 Minutes
Courtesy of CBS

The clock was ticking for the staff of “60 Minutes.” One season had ended, but another one loomed – along with a need for new stories.

When the entire staff of the venerable CBS newsmagazine gathered in a converted New York firehouse that is the home of contributor Anderson Cooper last spring, Jeff Fager, the show’s executive producer, had a wish list. The crew had enjoyed a good run during its 49th season, he told them, according to two people present at the event. But Fager wanted more. “60 Minutes” shouldn’t only produce high-quality reporting, he said. The stories had to be more relevant, more of the moment, more timely.

Fager seems to be getting his wish.

“60 Minutes” is attracting an unusual amount of notice just five weeks into its season. A joint effort between the show and The Washington Post examining how members of Congress worked with large drug distributors to undermine the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s ability to stop the flow of opioids in the U.S. resulted in the rebuke of Rep. Tom Marino, who was supposed to head up the Trump administration’s anti-drug efforts. Charlie Rose snared an interview with Steve Bannon. Steve Kroft, the longest-serving correspondent among the current staff, is gearing up for a trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. “It’s one of many things we are looking at today,” Kroft said while chatting in his office. “You have to know which roads are open and which bridges are closed.”

The recent spate of stories is “unusually robust,” said Fager.

The October 15th broadcast of “60 Minutes,” which featured the opioid report, snared 13.34 million viewers, up 68% among the audience most coveted by advertisers – people between 25 and 54 – and up 28% among overall viewers, compared with the year-earlier broadcast.

And then there’s the presence of Oprah Winfrey, who has joined the show’s roster of contributors in this, its 50th season on the air. She has already finished two stories, and a third idea has been approved, Winfrey told a reporter in a brief exchange earlier this week at the show’s studio in Manhattan.  “I’m just hoping to get more out of her than anybody expected,” said Fager.

“60 Minutes” faces a unique challenge each week in the fall. It inherits millions of viewers from CBS’ weekly late-afternoon football telecasts – but then has to keep them, particularly as the start time for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” draws nigh. “You don’t want people swinging from football game to football game,” said Kroft. “You want them to stay during that intermission period.” The key is to serve up news making segments and engrossing stories. Kroft has in recent weeks served up a profile of British spy author John le Carre (the pen name for novelist David Cornwell) and a story about Shon Hopwood, a convicted bank robber who managed to become an associate law professor at Georgetown University.

To keep viewers rooted, “60 Minutes” might find itself in some non-traditional behind-the-scenes situations. Earlier this week, for example, Fager and veteran producers like Debbie DeLuca-Sheh and Rome Hartman huddled in the show’s studio – located just steps away in a giant CBS broadcast facility from Walter Cronkite’s news desk – waiting for Winfrey to arrive. Talk of Winfrey joining the program first surfaced about six years ago, Fager recalled, but she  “didn’t really have time to even think about it.” More recently, he said, Winfrey approached CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, and things began to take place. “She belongs with us,” said Fager. “I mean, it’s a big deal.”

But so is the show, which launched in 1968 as a bi-weekly program hosted by Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace. The team doesn’t seem fazed by NBC’s efforts to create a similar Sunday-evening newsmagazine anchored by Megyn Kelly. “People have come up against us for many years, at many times. We are used to it,” said Fager. Don Hewitt, the program’s creator and first leader, “used to say, ‘come on in, the water is fine,’ and I sort of feel the same way.”

Bill Whitaker, the program’s newest correspondent, is certainly swimming. He delivered last week’s opioid report on the show and is mindful of its power to effect change. “60 Minutes” and Washington Post staffers “had been working on this for months. We sort of divided up responsibilities, and we have been coordinating this long distance. ‘You are calling that person, I am calling this person.’’said Whitaker, who joined “60 Minutes” in 2014. “Hopefully, we can do it again.”

“60 Minutes” will continue to do stories on the nation’s opioid crisis, said Fager. “We are not going to leave this,” he said. “More than one team is on it, because it’s so important.”

The show’s history and ability to influence the news can be daunting, said Whitaker, who previously covered California  and border issues for CBS News. “You sort of walk in the door, and feel a little, ‘Am I worthy?’”  But time and the process of researching a bevy of segments puts one into the program’s pace, he said.  At “60 Minutes,” he said, all kinds of stories are possible – if you can just nail the details. Fager “will give you the freedom to do as many pieces as you want or can,” said Whitaker. “You just better make sure you come back with the goods.” On Sunday, “60 Minutes” will start ticking again.