’60 Minutes’ Chief Presses to Keep Show Ticking Into the Future

'60 Minutes' Chief Presses to Keep
Courtesy of CBS News

Scott Pelley once found himself in the kind of terrible situation that would prompt most people to abandon him immediately. Not Bill Owens.

CBS News veteran Pelley had traveled to Iraq in 2003 with a production team in tow, including a familiar face: longtime producer Bill Owens. Pelley and Owens had covered the White House together in an earlier era. They had journeyed to Iraq and embedded with U.S. Marines under fire. Yet as an explosive detonated overhead, soldiers believed they were under chemical attack. Pelley noticed – too late – that he had left his gas mask behind in the team’s vehicle.

“I turned, and Bill, who had been maybe 50 yards away, immediately saw what the problem was, grabbed my gas mask and sprinted into the fire fight to get it to me,” Pelley recounts. “It turned out the shell that exploded over our heads was not a chemical weapon. But he didn’t know that. And nobody knew that.”

Bill Owens has built a career out of treading ground others would prefer to avoid. He’s still doing it in his relatively early tenure as just the third executive producer in the history of CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

Owens got the job under some tumult, succeeding former executive producer Jeff Fager as CBS News faced an internal reckoning after the ouster of Charlie Rose and as speculation swirled over who might take the reins at the newsmagazine. He has worked under scrutiny in the past. He was one of the early staffers at “60 Minutes II,” a spin-off of the original that launched despite the resistance of Don Hewitt, the show’s original leader.

“Some people did see it as a threat for the people at ’60 Minutes.’ I saw it as an opportunity to measure ourselves against ’60 Minutes,’” Owens says in a recent interview at the show’s offices in midtown Manhattan, before the recent coronavirus epidemic forced CBS News employees from their New York facilities. He was named executive producer of the show in February of last year, but has essentially been running things since the fall of 2018.

He is about to step once again into new territory, launching a new extension of the long-running program – and it’s not for TV. In April, if current circumstances don’t get in the way, the new short-form video service Quibi will debut “60 in 6,” an edition of “60 Minutes” that Owens hopes will appeal to a younger viewer, and potentially develop a new generation with an ear for the ticking of the series’ signature stopwatch.

“Look, ’60 Minutes’ will always be the mother ship – Sunday at 7 o’clock, and we take that seriously, as Don Hewitt did 50 years ago,” says Owens. “But more and more young people are watching and getting their news off of their mobile devices, and I thought it was important to have a ’60 Minutes’ product available.”

Owens carries a lot of weight on his shoulders. At a news division where the morning and evening programs remain behind rivals at ABC and NBC, “60 Minutes” is a crown jewel at the network. It reaches a high-income audience that advertisers prize, and, in these days of viewers migrating to streaming-video services, it keeps bringing in big crowds. In an era when consumers have been forced to stay at home due to the spread of coronavirus, viewership for “60 Minutes” could grow in days to come. Al;ready, the show is often one of the nation’s most-watched programs.

It is also one of the last of its kind. Most newsmagazines like “48 Hours,” “20/20” and “Dateline” focus on true crime stories, with the occasional investigative piece or breaking-news interview. Recent attempts by NBC to mount a new rival to “60 Minutes” – shows like “Rock Center,” “On Assignment” and “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” – have failed to gain traction. Owens points to the PBS investigative series “Frontline” as a competitor he monitors.

The Quibi version won’t be Mike Wallace’s “60 Minutes.” The segments will be six to nine minutes in length, not the usual 13 devoted to the stories on the TV program. When Quibi users check in, they’ll be greeted by a more modern timepiece than the stopwatch, says Ryan Kadro, a senior content executive at Quibi and former CBS News producer who is overseeing the service’s news programming. This clock will tick faster than the one to which longtime viewers are accustomed. “The ticking was essential,” says Kadro, but Quibi founder Jeffrey Kaztenberg “had the idea to speed up the ticking, because it’s Quibi, a little quicker paced.”

Owens is building a staff for the new venture that is largely separate from the one that puts together the TV program, with four new correspondents: Seth Doane, a CBS News foreign correspondent; Laurie Segall, a tech reporter who previously worked for CNN; Wesley Lowery, a former national correspondent for The Washington Post; and Enrique Acevedo, a Univision news correspondent. “I see it in some ways as a farm team . Some of the correspondents who were hired for this ’60 in 6’ show may one day work on the Sunday show,” says Owens. The staff for the Quibi production, he says, will come to at least 30 staffers.

The pact with Quibi is all the more remarkable because CBS has its own streaming-news outlet, CBSN, as well as a premium subscription service, CBS All Access. “There was vigorous debate,” says Owens, but Quibi was appealing because of its direct focus on younger viewers. The show will aim for people between 25 and 35, says Kadro, “We know this is an audience that is really hungry for information and context to try and understand the world around them,” he adds, and “60 Minutes” is “already a brand that everybody is really familiar with.”

And yet, Owens is also making some subtle changes at the flagship. Yes, viewers continue to see the in-depth enterprise reporting that sends Bill Whitaker to the Bahamas to examine how officials there are grappling with climate change or dispatches Jon Wertheim to investigate what driverless trucks might do to the transportation industry. But they are increasingly watching segments that try to get behind the most pressing headlines of the week.

Scott Pelley recently went to Westchester County, NY, a center of the coronavirus epidemic in the state, and interviewed nurses and even someone who has quarantined herself. That has followed in-the-headlines interviews with people like Senator Bernie Sanders or former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg at moments of consequence.

“Bill’s DNA is in hard news,” says Lesley Stahl, the “60 Minutes” correspondent most associated with the program’s earlier eras. “He is definitely bringing that sensibility overall and to each individual piece. I have noticed it with some of my pieces, where he will say, ‘Lesley, you buried the lede.’ And I haven’t heard that in a long time.”

Owens thinks “60” can serve as a definitive source on a story that generates chatter all week. When cable-news talking heads drone on about a topic for days, his show can often get to the people at the center of the discussion for a first-mover interview.

Getting Pelley’s report on the air took lots of work. Senior staffers at “60 Minutes” have been working under self-quarantine after a handful of CBS News staffers have tested positive for coronavirus, according to a person familiar with the matter.  The lead piece was uploaded for broadcast from a hotel room in White Plains, where some staffers rented a room to edit it, this person says. Between screening segments and going over scripts, Sunday’s broadcast wasn’t finalized until just 90 minutes before airtime.

“We spend a lot of weekends here crashing stories that are topical,” says Owens. “We want to be in the conversation. We want to help start a conversation at the beginning of every week. ‘Did you see what was on 60 Minutes?’”

He has plans for the show’s future as well. With the full-time correspondent team down to just three – Stahl, Pelley and Whitaker – after Steve Kroft’s retirement, Owens Is interested in adding. The show has a wide range of contributors, including two, Sharyn Alfonsi and Wertheim, whose profiles are growing. Anderson Cooper contributes about ten pieces a year, largely done during scheduled time off from his job  at CNN. Norah O’Donnell, John Dickerson and Holly Williams also contribute.

“I would like to get the correspondent staff to a more settled full time staff, rather than two [stories] here, six there and eight there, but it’s tricky,” Owens says. “We are not there yet. We are clearly in a transition point,” Many will likely be called, but few will be chosen. Owens isn’t looking to land a star anchor, but rather an ace storyteller. “That’s much more important to me than some bright-light boldface name,” he says. “I’m not really interested in the free agency market and whose contract is coming up.”

But he’s also eager to keep both the Quibi staff and the TV staff moving along. “Bill used to work for me,” says Pelley. “And now I work for him.”