Can Hewitt Stop Clock?

That stopwatch stops for no man.

Don Hewitt, the 80-year-old executive producer, inventor, backbone and spiritual stiff upper lip of CBS’ 60 Minutes , has always been a man who valued the blunt truth. As Mr. Hewitt told Larry King on CNN last year, he preferred the days when politicians called each other “a son of a bitch instead of a dirty liberal or a dirty Republican.” Don Hewitt likes honesty.

So it came as no surprise when, on Friday, Oct. 24, producers at 60 Minutes began mumbling about a letter the TV legend had allegedly typed up-and some said circulated-in which Mr. Hewitt criticized CBS News as a broken organization littered with failing news programs and proposed that CBS News reconsider his forced retirement in June 2004.

After all, Don Hewitt was just being honest. He had invented the best thing CBS News ever had, and he knew best how to run it.

Reached for comment, Mr. Hewitt admitted the letter existed, but he said he never actually sent it to management.

“I was talking about doing it and never did and decided it wasn’t called for and I’m happier than hell,” he said. “If it’s written, then somebody stole it off my word processor. I’m happier than hell. I could not be happier.

“I don’t know of any news organization that couldn’t use some work,” he said of his criticism of CBS News, “from The New York Times on down-including The New York Observer .”

Nobody could disagree with that, and if he could do for this newspaper what he did for CBS News, whoa! Retirement … never! But for one of the cockiest kids in the history of TV, Mr. Hewitt sounded self-deprecating and grateful to the company that has agreed to let him hang around as an executive producer until the year 2013, when he’ll be 90, a stripling compared with some of the yogurt-guzzling supergeezers you see on the air, namely his 60 Minutes co-workers. He is four years younger than Andy Rooney and five younger than Mike Wallace, two bristling journalists who seem about ready to start grappling with their midlife crises.

One CBS executive said Mr. Hewitt often drafted memos and shared them with colleagues to feel out ideas before executing them, but a number of executives also told The Observer that these are difficult days for Mr. Hewitt, who must face separation from his 35-year-old creation, a show that revolutionized TV journalism, and bequeath his duties to the current 60 Minutes II executive producer, 47-year-old Jeffrey Fager. Mr. Hewitt may not be learning the art of the graceful exit, but he’s not doing the opposite.

Nevertheless, the existence-and near public fact-of Mr. Hewitt’s letter only served to underscore the blunt issues surrounding his eventual departure, not only for Mr. Hewitt personally, or even for Mr. Fager, but for the entire 60 Minutes franchise and its particular place in the American culture. For in the vast gloppy landscape of TV, 60 Minutes has held onto its Rooster Cogburn–ish true grit, gristle and stuff. Its integrity and hormonal, jostling personality-pure extensions of Mr. Hewitt’s persona-have not diminished. And when Mr. Hewitt begins his executive departure next summer-and with him, perhaps one or all of the downshifting Big Three correspondents, Ed Bradley, Mike Wallace and Morley Safer-his absence will bring to bear an unavoidable question: Can 60 Minutes , a fundamental function and extension of Don Hewitt’s drive, remain the rough-and-tumble, sentimental, hard-nosed operation it has been?

When Mr. Hewitt leaves, there’s a prospect of 60 Minutes becoming like the competition-a replicant, a kind of Primetime Sunday Dateline U.S.A. III . Don Hewitt is a rarity in TV, an auteur. And they’re not so common. After all, The Tonight Show without Johnny Carson is still on, but it’s just TV, and ABC News without Roone Arledge is just ABC News. But where’s the jet fuel? It’s true that all things must change, but what if they don’t really have to so quickly?

Can Mr. Hewitt’s legacy hover long enough to keep it vital, familiar, needed, protected, the last network appointment news program?

A CBS spokesman said neither Mr. Fager nor CBS News president Andrew Heyward were prepared to talk about it until next year. But a number of CBS employees said that if Mr. Hewitt was suggesting that he’s the Gandalf of West 57th Street, it was a little scary because … it might be true.

And if it were up to many staffers at 60 Minutes , Mr. Hewitt would remain executive producer until his final tick … tick … tick .

“It ain’t broken, we don’t want to fix it,” said one 60 Minutes producer, who, of course, declined to be named. “I’m not anxious to move forward. If it needs new life, new spark, I think Don can provide that himself. Thank God it’s Jeff”-he meant Jeff Fager-”and not somebody from the outside.”

There is widespread belief-let’s call it hope-throughout both 60 Minutes I and II that Mr. Hewitt’s legacy-the brand, the institution-can sustain 60 Minutes without Mr. Hewitt. But that’s mainly because the show won’t be changing much.

” 60 Minutes does not condescend to its audience and that’s largely because Don has made it a standard not to do that,” said David Gelber, a producer at the show. ” 60 Minutes is a haven where you can still respect the audience. You look at stuff like that Elizabeth Smart interview on Sunday”-Katie Couric’s Dateline NBC exclusive that aired Oct. 26-”that’s embarrassing shit. And we don’t do that.”

Mr. Gelber was confident that Mr. Fager would be able to protect the integrity of 60 Minutes . “I think people feel that Fager’s sense is close enough to Don’s sensibility that the quality will be maintained,” he said. “Look at 60 Minutes II . There’s no reason to think that sensibility is going to be lost.”

“I think Don has protected it through its success,” said George Crile, a former producer at 60 Minutes who now produces for Dan Rather at 60 Minutes II , “through his constant capacity to reinvigorate it when it looked like it was going down. I think he will continue to protect it, oddly enough, by the foundation he created. I think there is tremendous opportunity if it’s seized. If Don were younger and intact, the same challenges apply.” Mr. Fager, he said, “has to create a certain sense of excitement and a sense of mission.”

Morley Safer did not expect “volcanic” changes at the newsmagazine under Mr. Fager’s tenure. “I don’t see any eruptive change at all,” said Mr. Safer. “Partly because Jeff is not going to go and prove something. He’s proven what he has to prove already. I’m sure there’s going to be the usual grumbling, and people do that.”

So far, the management philosophy at CBS News is to not rock the barge, to bring in new employees over time, bring co-editor Lesley Stahl and correspondent Bob Simon up front as Mr. Safer and Mr. Wallace scale back, and possibly return Dan Rather to the show he worked on from 1975 to 1981 as a permanent member, should he ever release his own grip on the CBS Evening News desk. The essential format will remain as long as people love it: the ticking clock, the introductions, the three segments-one hard, one semi-hard, one soft-with some Andy Rooney type (someday it’ll probably be old Sarah Vowell) as the after-dinner lecture.

But right now, with the familiar faces, the formula still has a good kick: On Sunday, Oct. 26, the show scored a 10.7-16.2 million viewers-in the Nielsen ratings, broadcasting Ed Bradley’s piece on the Moscow theater hostage crisis, Steve Kroft’s segment on radioactive dumping at Yucca Mountain and Mr. Safer’s look at undercover marketing. Good show; great stories. 60 Minutes is still 60 Minutes .

With ratings for network news descending as the cable supermarket exploded-and 60 Minutes has, despite holding its relative ground, suffered ratings declines in the last five years-one CBS News producer said that CBS News president Andrew Heyward and the rest of CBS management had badly stumbled in coping with the transition, allowing old correspondents to become pretty ancient while not going to the minors to develop new talent.

“As a manager, how could you take that kind of a trademark and allow yourself to get this point?” the producer asked. “Imagine you were running the world and you suddenly discovered everybody was 85 and you hadn’t made plans for next year? Everybody’s taking their long summer vacation and pretending it’s business as usual.”

There seems to be a hunkered-down, change-averse fatalism among some 60 Minutes producers concerning Mr. Hewitt’s departure. Asked if the show would wobble when Mr. Hewitt left, one CBS News producer said, “I can’t buy that. Don is a genius and he’s one of a kind. Whether we like it or not, things change. God willing, it could stay exactly as it was forever. But that’s not an option.”

“The thrust of it is, any news broadcast is going to be better with Don Hewitt than without Don Hewitt,” said another 60 Minutes producer. “That’s a given. This is going to be without Don Hewitt and that’s too bad. But that’s life.”

“In many ways, Don’s dynamism and his enthusiasm were the things that kept 60 Minutes so charged,” said Joel Bernstein, a producer for Bob Simon at 60 Minutes II , who called him “an inspirational kind of guy. You went out and you wanted to please Don. But Don grew into that role. Jeff in a way has a much tougher challenge-how to keep it up. Don was inventing the wheel and just about anything he would put on, people would watch. People tuned in to see what Mike and Morley were doing. That’s not the case now. Because you have so many more choices. I think more people than not will think that’s Jeff’s the guy to do it. You just have to keep the wheel moving.”

Weirdly, what producers at 60 Minutes don’t want is the hiring of some larger-than-life personality who will screw around with the formula: a young Don Hewitt, or Roone Arledge, or-in a Bizzaro CBS universe-a Roger Ailes. They don’t want someone to reconfigure the program in new, risky ways. They want Don’s show.

But life doesn’t necessarily work that way.

In 1998, Chris Wallace, the son of Mike Wallace and a longtime ABC News correspondent, was invited to join 60 Minutes II , but ABC prevented him. With his contract up again this season, Mr. Wallace announced on Monday, Oct. 27, that he would anchor Fox News Sunday . Describing his new boss to The Observer , Chris Wallace sounded a lot like what his father sounded like describing Mr. Hewitt many years ago. “He thinks big and he takes chances,” he said. “In an era of so-called decline in the news business, he’s always thinking of ways to grow his network.”

He was talking about Roger Ailes.

Mr. Wallace said Mr. Hewitt and his father were giants. Whether they were replaceable remained to be seen, but he seemed skeptical.

“As time goes on and you will start to see Scott Pelley and Bob Simon move into those positions,” he said. “Are they giants? Time will tell. They don’t come along very often. Do I have any doubts of their ability to put on a serious, thoughtful, first-rate broadcast? No. Can you capture that lightning in a bottle again? That’s a good question.”

Chris Wallace said that the old guard had protected the franchise from deteriorating under the pressures of demographics, costs and ratings, the stuff often scrutinized by company stockholders. But once that old guard is gone, all bets are off.

“I’m amazed they’re getting those audiences with stories we’d never dream of doing,” he said. “Whether they’ll still watch those kinds of stories just because they’re attached to 60 Minutes , if it’s not Ed and Mike and Morley telling them-they may say this is way too serious and where is Jennifer and Ben? I think 60 Minutes , because of its enormous success, is the most untouchable program in TV news and maybe in all of TV. With a new cast of characters, will it still be untouchable?”

Mr. Wallace didn’t attempt an answer.

“Every program needs a driving force,” said David Corvo, the executive producer of Dateline NBC and a former executive at CBS News. He suggested that 60 Minutes would need someone willing to invigorate the show, as Mr. Hewitt had done many times in his career there. “Don was always quietly reinventing the show,” he said. “It’s not the same show it was 35 years ago. They used to do all the ambush stuff and he decided it had worn out its welcome. When he hadn’t been doing much news and the Gulf War broke out in the early 90′s, he went big time into investigative stuff. The ratings went up, but the quality of the show went up, too.”

For now, Mr. Heyward and CBS News want to maintain and prune 60 Minutes like any other high-quality brand, which means doing everything very slowly and cautiously: introducing new talent, trying to develop flagship correspondents on 60 Minutes II , hoping the viewing public doesn’t flee as Mount Rushmore-Mr. Wallace, Mr. Safer, Mr. Rooney, Mr. Bradley-crumbles and gets replaced by the John Roberts generation. CBS News employees are enthusiastic about Mr. Fager-and insiders point to 60 Minutes senior producer Josh Howard as his likely successor at 60 Minutes II -because he promises to maintain the historic integrity created by Mr. Hewitt.

“They could have gone outside the company and brought in somebody like a former Dateline NBC executive producer,” said Mr. Bernstein. “The fact that they appointed Jeff and are leaning toward Josh is a good sign-even if there are people who believe that Jeff can’t measure up to Hewitt’s size.”

Meanwhile, Morley Safer, 71, wasn’t convinced that he’ll be able to cut back his working time to half time as he had planned on doing earlier next year. “We’ll see if that happens!” Mr. Safer said. “It’s supposed to happen in December, but it may take a little while before it kicks in.”