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’60 Minutes’ Must Tick Forward, Even Without New Chief

They’re getting ready to start the stopwatch again at CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

Over the course of its more than half-century of life, the venerable CBS newsmagazine has had only two chiefs, Jeff Fager and Don Hewitt.  Now it has none. That won’t keep the show off the air. “60 Minutes” will kick off its 51st season on Sunday, even though CBS News has yet to name a new executive producer for the program.

Viewers can expect to see a profile of Paul McCartney in which the former Beatle offers intimate anecdotes about his relationship with John Lennon to correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi (pictured, above). The producer of the segment is Bill Owens, who also happens to be the show’s executive editor and is viewed as an internal candidate for the executive producer slot. And correspondent Bill Whitaker will offer the sixth in his series of examinations of the nation’s opioid epidemic, this time interviewing a doctor who has been sentenced to 157 years in prison for drug trafficking.

The launch should be a time of renewal at the show, a return to established routines. But “60 Minutes” continues to operate in an atmosphere that is decidedly different than the norm. A spokesman for the program said producers were not available to discuss the show.

The show’s previous chief, Fager, was ousted earlier this month for what CBS said was a violation of company policy. Fager had been under scrutiny for weeks after The New Yorker printed allegations by CBS News staffers that he had tolerated a tough workplace culture and possibly touched some employees inappropriately. Fager has denied the allegations and both he and CBS agree that his dismissal came after a threatening tweet he made to a CBS News reporter who was investigating the claims.

Two people familiar with the show say a portion of the staff would like to see Owens take the reins. They feel he’s earned a crack at the title after serving as Fager’s deputy for many years, these people say. These people also note that “60” has an insular culture that would be difficult for anyone who has not worked there to navigate.

But others within CBS and at other network newsrooms think the role is a natural for Susan Zirinsky, the veteran CBS News producer who currently oversees “48 Hours.” If named chief, she would be the first female producer to run the show – and only the third person in its history to do so. Placing Zirinsky at “60 Minutes” could also help break down barriers between the tony newsmagazine and the rest of the news division, which tend to have separate production processes.

There might be an interesting way for CBS News to thread this needle. In the past, CBS News had an executive producer at “60 Minutes” and an executive who supervised all its newsmagazines. Betsy West had oversight of both “48 Hours” and “60 Minutes” between 1998 and 2005 and served as a senior vice president at CBS News. It’s not clear that anyone involved is seeking this sort of arrangement.

CBS News President David Rhodes has during his tenure at the head of the news division shaken up many of its best-known programs. Both “Face the Nation” and “CBS Evening News” have had new anchors arrive in recent months – Margaret Brennan and Jeff Glor – while John Dickerson took the seat inhabited by the ousted Charlie Rose earlier this year at “CBS This Morning.” Rhodes has also worked to integrate CBS’ news programs with digital processes, so that staffers and anchors are also contributing to CBSN, the company’s streaming-video hub.

Having Zirinsky named to the job would continue his efforts by putting a CBS News producer, not a “60 Minutes” veteran, at the helm. But Owens’ tenure on the show is not to be dismissed.  Early speculation about tapping an executive from outside CBS News to run the program seems to have tamped down, but CBS News could certainly choose from a range of options when it comes to keeping “60 Minutes” on the clock.

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