×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

In Era of Change, ‘60 Minutes’ Focuses on Hard News

You might think Lesley Stahl would be rested. Her show, “60 Minutes,” broadcasts on Sundays. And she snared the big interview for her story last Thursday.

“If I sound tired, I am,” the veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent told Variety in an interview, just hours before getting on a plane to Africa to pursue another report. Stahl unveiled last night on the show one of the biggest stories of the week — a Thursday sit-down with President Donald Trump during which she asked him about his views on climate change, pushed back on his use of undocumented sources, and elicited vows of potential retaliation if the Saudis have in fact assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The segment sparked tons of reaction.

Viewers expect big stories from “60 Minutes” each week. They don’t always get segments that are so tightly entwined with the current news cycle. “The first three shows of this season, the opening pieces have been right on the news — hard-news pieces,” says Stahl.

“60 Minutes” is no stranger to generating headlines. An aficionado of the venerable CBS newsmagazine typically expects deep-dive reporting into any number of newsy subjects, such as Bill Whitaker’s recent look at the opioid crisis, or a whimsical profile of an artist or celebrity about whom everyone wants to know more. Since the show launched its 51st season three weeks ago, producers have made certain that one segment has been about the week’s most-discussed issues – a bid, perhaps, to give viewers something extremely relevant to consider even as “60” applies its own brand of reporting to the matter at hand.

“60 Minutes” opened the season with Scott Pelley getting reaction from both Republican Senator Jeff Flake and Democratic Senator Chris Coons to the emotional testimony from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last week, Pelley presented interviews with Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, in which they explained why they voted how they did on the Kavanaugh confirmation. The stories gave viewers added perspective into a topic that was arguably one of the most consequential decisions about American government in recent memory.

The emphasis has surfaced as the CBS show is in a period of transition. Jeff Fager, the longtime executive producer of “60 Minutes” left the company in September after responding to a CBS News reporter with a threatening text message — a violation, CBS said, of company policy. Fager had been under 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 significant portion of the staff would like to see Bill Owens, the show’s executive editor, take the reins. Owens is managing the program as CBS News considers candidates for the executive producer role. These people also note that “60” has an insular culture that would be difficult for anyone who has not worked there to navigate.

Other names have surfaced as potential replacements for Fager, including that of 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.

Owens has been busy. He helped produce an opening-week story on Paul McCartney, and was instrumental, Stahl says, in securing the interview with President Trump. He was also involved, she says, in Pelley’s recent work.

Stahl interviewed Trump and his family for a “60 Minutes” segment in November of 2016 – just days after he was elected to the Oval Office. Trump promised another sit down, Stahl recounts. “From time to time, Jeff Fager would check into the White House and sort of urge them to consider whatever the month way. Bill Owens picked that up and pursued it.”

Getting behind breaking headlines means more work for the staff, Owens told Variety. Producers were working on Saturdays to get Pelley’s interviews ready for air. “I haven’t, and most of the staff hasn’t, had a day off in three weeks, literally,” he says. “There’s a real feeling of everybody pitching in on the floor,” he adds. For the Trump interview, he adds, “I have to give credit where it is due, to Lesley and a host of producers, assistant producers and editors who were really grinding it out.”

And there can be risk for “60 Minutes” in chasing breaking news. What if the reporting can’t hold until the Sunday broadcast? “We have been worried all week that the news was going to get ahead of the interview,” says Stahl. Indeed, “60 Minutes” released news of President Trump’s remarks about the Saudis and Khashoggi well ahead of the broadcast.

The show is not backing away from the types of stories for which it’s famous, says Owens, but “we want to be on the news” when the show can “cover it in a way that we are going to bring something new to the story, something value added.” Viewers want to see longer conversations from newsmakers, he says, even examine their body language as they respond to the most important questions of the day.

Viewers who watched Stahl’s segment on Sunday saw a President much more confident in his position. “He was almost the opposite of what he was” when she interviewed him in 2016 for “60 Minutes” after he had been elected to office. “He was just a different person then,’” she recalls. “He was sitting back in his chair. Zero feistiness. As any president was, he was just beginning to absorb the challenges that he was facing.” On Thursday, she says, she encountered “a man who is feeling extremely confident. He had a lot to crow about. At the same time, she pressed him on the facts throughout the encounter.

Owens says the hard-news segments help bolster the program. “This isn’t about me auditioning” for the executive-producer role, he says. “This is about what’s best for ’60 Minutes’ and our audience, really, who expect us to relentlessly be covering the news in a smart way that’s in keeping with our standards. That’s what we are going to do.”

While the show charts its path, Stahl says she tries to focus on her assignments. There’s plenty to do. “You put your mind to your story. You have to find your pieces. You have to make them sing, and make sense, and have a beginning, middle and end. That takes a lot of work.”

More TV

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Showrunners, Screenwriters Back WGA in Agency Battle, Sides to Meet Again Tuesday

    More than 750 showrunners and screenwriters have backed the WGA’s battle against talent agencies taking packaging fees and other changes to the rules governing the business relationship between agents and writers. The letter of support issued Saturday is significant because of the immense clout showrunners and prominent screenwriters possess in Hollywood. Several showrunners had recently [...]

  • Norman Reedus and Ryan Hurst'The Walking

    Norman Reedus on 'The Walking Dead' Without Andrew Lincoln: 'He's With Me Every Day'

    After saying goodbye to most of the original cast on “The Walking Dead,” Norman Reedus still feels his former co-stars with him during each episode. “I’ve seen so many people come and go,” he said during a “Walking Dead” panel on Friday at PaleyFest. “Right now on the show, the ghosts of all those guys [...]

  • Series Mania: De Mensen, Reel One

    Series Mania: First Details on Co-Pro Pitching Project 'Capturing Big Mouth' (EXCLUSIVE)

    LILLE, France — Belgian production company De Mensen, which has just been acquired by France’s Newen, has teamed with Reel One Entertainment on a new cross-continental thriller series, “Capturing Big Mouth. The series will be pitched Monday at this year’s Series Mania Forum Co-pro Pitching section. It chronicles the unlikely rise and eventual fall of [...]

  • Daily Show Viacom

    Viacom, DirecTV Make Progress in Contract Talks, No Blackout After Deadline Passes

    UPDATED: Viacom and DirecTV executives went down to the wire Friday on a combative contract renewal negotiation with high stakes for both sides. The companies stayed in talks past the midnight Eastern contract expiration and the channels stayed up on AT&T’s platforms. Sources indicated early Saturday that the threat of a blackout had been averted. [...]

  • ABBY'S -- "Pilot" Episode 101 --

    TV Review: 'Abby's' Starring Natalie Morales

    “Abby’s,” NBC’s new comedy about a cranky bartender (Natalie Morales) and her inner circle of regulars, is aware of the inevitable “Cheers” comparisons. Created by “New Girl” writer Josh Malmuth and executive produced by uber-producer (and unabashed “Cheers” superfan) Mike Schur, “Abby’s” therefore makes a few key choices in order to differentiate itself as its [...]

  • Ryan Murphy Walk of Fame

    TV News Roundup: Netflix Sets Premiere Date for Ryan Murphy's 'The Politician'

    In today’s roundup, Netflix announces the premiere date for Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician” series, and Kristin Cavallari will host “Paradise Hotel” on Fox.  DATES Reality star Kristin Cavallari will host Fox’s reboot of “Paradise Hotel,” an unscripted dating show in which a group of singles will check into a tropical resort and compete to check [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content