‘60 Minutes’ Gets Younger, and Its Viewers Do Too
The oldest newsmagazine on television, “60 Minutes,” might have figured out how to halt the aging process.
Purposefully but almost imperceptibly, the CBS News program, the most popular of its genre, has become younger in recent years.
Stalwarts like Steve Kroft and Lesley Stahl have been joined by new contributors like Lara Logan and Anderson Cooper. And the program has embraced the Web to a degree that some of its older viewers have not, selling an iPad app on iTunes and promoting a weekly online show, “Overtime.”
After televising an hourlong “60 Minutes” tribute to Mike Wallace, a founding correspondent who died last month, CBS proudly noted in a news release that “ ‘Mike Wallace’ was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter Sunday night.”
Perhaps consequentially, or maybe just coincidentally, the 44-year-old newsmagazine is bucking network television’s downward ratings trend. In the season that started in September, viewership among 25- to 54-year-olds, the demographic that CBS hopes to reach, is up about 6 percent, to an average 3.5 Nielsen rating, from a 3.3. That increase has come even as the total viewer rating for “60 Minutes” has remained about the same.
Given that this has been a season of memorial services for “60 Minutes” legends, for Andy Rooney last winter, then for Mr. Wallace this spring, the gains have been especially heartening to the staff.
“It’s hard in television to grow from year to year,” said Jeff Fager, the “60 Minutes” executive producer. Indeed, the program’s average audience did slip a bit in 2009 and 2010. “Yet that’s what we set out to do every season,” he said. “To do it this season with younger viewers, for a news broadcast, is particularly gratifying.”
Mr. Fager, himself a signifier of generational change (at age 49, he took over for the creator of “60 Minutes,” Don Hewitt, then age 81), has gradually given tryouts to a new generation of correspondents, including Ms. Logan, who will become a full-time correspondent on “60 Minutes” next season — the first addition to the ranks in seven years.
At 41, Ms. Logan is 13 years younger than the next-youngest full-time correspondent on the broadcast, Scott Pelley, whom Mr. Fager promoted in 2005. For the last decade she has been splitting her time between the newsmagazine and the news division’s other programs. Younger reporters, she said, are “earning our place” on “60 Minutes,” a famously cutthroat environment even by the competitive standards of newsrooms.
“People don’t have welcoming parties around here,” said Bill Owens, who as executive editor is Mr. Fager’s No. 2 at the program. “If you can do the work, you get an approving nod.”
That seriousness is a legacy of Mr. Hewitt and Mr. Wallace, whose names and sayings are still invoked routinely by staff members. “Part of the reason that this place is still doing well is that viewers expect the reporting and the storytelling to be done at a very high level,” and failing to live up to that standard would be akin to “letting down your father,” Mr. Owens said.
The “60 Minutes” staff remains cloistered in a Manhattan office building across West 57th Street from the rest of CBS News. But employees have been crossing the street more often in the last year, ever since Mr. Fager was made the chairman of CBS News in a bid to spread the “60 Minutes” sensibility to other shows. He has offices on both sides now.
So does Mr. Pelley, who has remained a full-time correspondent while also serving as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” for the last 11 months. The other full-timers are Mr. Kroft, 66; Ms. Stahl, 70; and Bob Simon, 70. None have signaled any plans to retire soon. (Morley Safer, 80, is technically part-time, though he has reported 11 segments this season, according to CBS News.)
Story counts are a measure of success at “60 Minutes,” which runs about 100 original segments each season. Some full-time correspondents used to report more than 20 stories a season; now the average is more like 15, in part because there are more repeat programs each season and in part because other, younger reporters are getting chances to contribute.
Byron Pitts, 51, who also reports for the “CBS Evening News,” has had four stories this season; Anderson Cooper, 44, the CNN anchor, has had three; Dr. Sanjay Gupta, 42, the CNN chief medical correspondent, has had two.
“Jeff Fager and company have made the show younger and more energetic without anyone noticing that it’s had work done,” said Steven Reiner, a former “60 Minutes” producer who is an associate professor of journalism at Stony Brook University. “It’s the television equivalent of what Tina Brown did years back when she took over The New Yorker.”
Mr. Cooper and Dr. Gupta’s contributions are contractually limited since they work for CNN. But Dr. Gupta, who had his first story last season, had two more this season and Mr. Fager said, “He’ll be doing more with us next year.”
A CBS executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that were Mr. Cooper to become available to “60 Minutes” full time, he would be hired “in a heartbeat.” Mr. Cooper’s deal with CNN and with his daytime talk show extend through next year.
Mr. Fager emphasized in an interview that “60 Minutes” does not cater to any particular demographic. Like most news programs, more than half of its audience is 55 or older. About 13 million viewers watch on any given Sunday, the single biggest audience for hard-hitting journalism on television.
Asked about the program’s ratings resilience in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic, Mr. Fager said the reasons may include the show’s Web sites and apps, which “reach an audience that might not make an appointment with us at 7 p.m.”; its efforts to gain subscribers on Facebook and Twitter; and its story selection. He cited Sunday night’s profile of the swimmer Michael Phelps by Mr. Cooper: “I think that probably would have an appeal to a younger audience.”
Some critics have chided the broadcast for a surplus of sports-related stories in the fall, when it benefits from a lead-in from highly rated football games. But Mr. Hewitt always viewed “60 Minutes” as a showcase for features as well as investigative stories. To the producers, it’s a sampling opportunity that must be seized, and may be helping attract young viewers.
In an interview, Mr. Kroft suggested another partial explanation for the youthful glow. “People grow up watching this show with their parents at the dinner table,” he said, then they become parents and start watching with their children. “It’s a family tradition that comes from being on the air for 40 years.”