On Sunday, Scott Pelley gets a full hour to tell a story which has gripped him for 20 years.
In the season premiere of “60 Minutes,” the correspondent will give viewers a dramatic look at the firefighters who responded to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, complete with actual recordings of emergency calls made during the horrific event. Pelley went through tapes of conversations made available by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Fire Department of New York and found what may be the only one available between a victim of the attacks in their last moments and a 911 operator. Most, he says, have been kept out of the public sphere to give families privacy. In the end, Pelley conducts what is essentially a three-act suite, introducing firefighters, taking viewers through a harrowing trip up one of the Twin Towers in a doomed attempt to rescue stranded workers and then meeting a younger generation of relatives inspired by their predecessors’ sacrifice.
“Some people did not want to revisit that time,” says Pelley, who began reaching out to potential interviewees for the opener in May. “The people who did wanted to make a clear and accurate record of what happened that day, participating in the decision-making processes of the FDNY and explain why they did what they did.”
To get the job done, Pelley will have to wring every tick out of the iconic stopwatch that has opened the show for what will soon be 54 seasons. The single-story program will mark “the first hour-long season premiere in the history of the broadcast,” says Bill Owens, executive producer of the venerable CBS newsmagazine. He had to ask CBS to allow the debut of this year’s cycle to be moved up to dovetail with the anniversary of 9/11 this weekend.
Owens has only led the show in an official capacity for two full seasons, but he has already started to put his stamp on an enterprise that has had just two other editorial leaders, Jeff Fager, and the show’s iconic creator, Don Hewitt. The hour-long opener isn’t the only format experiment he’s tried (though the show has done a handful of hours with just a single story in the past). For most of Owens’ time at the helm, “60 Minutes” has focused more intently on presenting opening segments that get behind the most important headlines of the week, rather than on a story that may break news, but not stuff that’s in the immediate cycle.
“We have gotten more topical,” acknowledges Bill Whitaker, the “60 Minutes” correspondent who is still regarded as “the new kid of the block” even though he has been with the program since the fall of 2014. “Bill does have a love for hard news and wants to make sure we are on the news as well as covering the news.”
The producer says the recent news cycle, filled with Trump anomalies and pandemic concerns, “has afforded us an opportunity to be hyper-topical each week,” but notes he’s not ignoring “the mix” of stories that have made the program a top draw for half a century. “There’s something for everybody. ’60 Minutes’ travels and introduces you to things you’ll never have an opportunity to go and see yourself, whether it’s music or literature or just a great adventure.”
With a bunch of segments already going through the show’s famously rigorous editorial process, Owens and correspondents can offer a peek into its near future. Anderson Cooper, a frequent contributor, will examine the bond between Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, and get behind the scenes of their recent partnership, including their collaboration at Radio City Music Hall, which is likely to be Bennett’s last concert. Whitaker says he took part in one of the last major cattle drives that still exist in the U.S. “The ways of the West are starting to slip away, and this is the last place that still holds on to the old traditions,” he explains. Viewers can also expect to see more appearances by Jon Wertheim and Sharyn Alfonsi, two of the show’s biggest contributors, says Owens, who believes they represent a rising generation of the show’s correspondents.
Lesley Stahl, who has been with the program since 1991 and provides one of its remaining links to Hewitt and the halcyon days of correspondent Mike Wallace, recently took a trip to Rwanda to examine the return of some of its endangered mountain gorillas — an adventure that brought her to elevated climes that proved challenging to reach when she visited them decades ago. Despite Owens’ effort to push the envelope, Stahl says he is steering “60” back to its roots. “Don Hewitt conceived of the broadcast as something like a newsmagazine. There would be the front of the book and the back of the book, which is where you would see medical stories, interviews with a movie star. We slipped away from that for a while. Bill’s backing is in hard news, and he brings that sensibility to the broadcast.”
The nod to current events appears to be helping. The show nabbed a slight 1% increase in the number of viewers between 25 and 54 who watched it last season, the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming, as well as a 3% increase in overall audience. In an era when more viewers have embraced the streaming of their favorite shows on demand, even a small uptick can be valuable. CBS has come to rely on “60 Minutes,” which is often buoyed by Sunday-afternoon football games in the early part of the season, to keep many of those viewers and funnel them into freshman programs such as “The Equalizer” or “God Friended Me.” “We are helpful in that regard,” says Owens.
More is on the horizon. Pelley says some of his coming work will examine the neuroscience of heroism as well as police reform. Another story focuses on “a whistleblower, and that’s all I can tell you,” he says, cryptically. No matter what Owens does to the show, one thing is likely to remain: the stories.