Don’s New Tempest: Hewitt Conjuring PBS 60 Minutes

Tick, tick, tick, tick …

Tick.

Nearly a year after his retirement, Don Hewitt, the 83-year-old inventor of 60 Minutes, is talking with PBS about creating a new project-an hour-long program consisting of three separate documentary segments.

In other words, Mr. Hewitt’s new idea is … 60 Minutes.

“With general reality being shoved aside by NBC, ABC and CBS for contrived reality TV, public television is in a position to bring back CBS-style news,” Mr. Hewitt said by phone from his office at West 57th Street. “In that regard, I think an hour of television a week, devoted to two, three or four well-crafted, judiciously edited documentaries on a variety of subjects would be a winner.”

Technically, Mr. Hewitt can’t pull the trigger on any new projects until his CBS contract expires in June, and he said he doesn’t intend to.

But he’s ready to dream. And so, he said, he’s taken three existing documentaries-“one shocking, one entertaining, one poignant,” he said, declining to elaborate-and edited them into an hour-long test pilot. Mr. Hewitt said he gave CBS parent Viacom a first look at his project, in keeping with the terms of his contract. They passed on it, he said.

“I want to do it 60 Minutes–style,” said Mr. Hewitt. “I want to take the great moments from documentaries, just like we took great moments from our documentaries and made them 60 Minutes pieces. And I think there’s a world of that stuff out there.”

As the network newsmagazines fight for air time and the cable-news outlets go on 24-hour tabloid chimney alert, where’s well-meaning documentary news to go? Well, PBS. Considering the shrinking air time for network news, PBS could find a huge infusion of available talent in the coming years-for instance, Nightline host Ted Koppel and his longtime executive producer Tom Bettag, who will depart ABC News in December. No, they’re not announcing anything, but Mr. Bettag did say PBS had great potential to make up for what’s been lost at the networks.

“There is a real opportunity for PBS, in that the networks are under enormous pressure from advertisers to deliver an 18-to-49 audience,” said Mr. Bettag, “which is not the easiest news audience to have. If PBS could find a way to deliver news to the 49-plus audience, it would be a real service to the citizenry.”

But anyone who wants to create a news show for PBS faces byzantine issues: inconsistent time slots across member stations; in-fighting over political bias; and the need to constantly kiss up to corporate sponsors, who aren’t exactly in huge supply right now. Just ask Pat Mitchell, PBS’ chief executive, who announced she would step down next year, after suffering the feudal system for five years. That included political heat from Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings over the appearance of some lesbian moms who were set to appear in passing on the kids’ show Postcards from Buster. (The show was never aired, angering liberals in turn.)

And as it stands, PBS already features a slew of public-affairs programs, including NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Tavis Smiley, Washington Week, Frontline and Wide Angle.

Also: Does anyone really care to watch quality news?

Jim Lehrer, host of NewsHour, attempted to answer that question at a PBS Showcase Meeting in Las Vegas on April 12.

“I hear what some people are saying,” he said to an audience of 800 public-television employees. “With all of these other outlets, broadcast and otherwise, who needs public television?”

Mr. Lehrer argued that there was “an increasing need-and demand-within the public for assistance in sorting through it all.”

As it stands, he observed, News Hour had three million viewers, “significantly outdrawing CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in our time period.”

In July 2003, this incarnation of NYTV began with a story about the future of 60 Minutes, the great ticker of TV news. So it ends with another.

We want to believe, we really do. In fact, we’d like to officially declare long-form investigative journalism narrated by newscasters who add ponderous weight to subjects worthy of ponderous weight the new black. But it’s probably more like the new burnt umber.

Close enough. Tonight, Dan Rather puts his reporter’s cap back on and investigates celebrity poker on 60 Minutes Wednesday. [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]

Thursday, April 21

% What does the future of television hold for Triumph the Insult Comic Dog? Where can we envision his career 10 years from now?

It’s a question that only his stage hand can answer.

“For Triumph, he ends up in Branson when he gets tired of touring,” Robert Smigel said by phone on Tuesday, April 19. “He wants to get away from the camera, become more of an entrepreneur, produce game shows and salad dressing.”

For charity, like Paul Newman?

“A little of it for charity. A small portion,” he said. “Hopefully he’ll be stinking up someone else’s hand.”

As for himself, Mr. Smigel had great dreams for the future of television.

“I just want a wider screen,” he said. “I don’t think the screen is wide enough.”

Tonight, no screen is wide enough to capture the unbridled joy of The O.C.’s Seth Cohen (actor Adam Brody) when indie-rockers Death Cab for Cutie make an appearance. It’s his dream come true to see those guys!

We don’t even know what we’re talking about. [Fox, 5, 8 p.m.]

Friday, April 22

& Now that we think about it, PBS has always been kind of punk rock. We recall some lyrics from our favorite song by late 80’s punk band the Mice, out of Cleveland, Ohio. It’s called “Public Television”:

The White House calls it a communist threat

But they ain’t seen the last of it yet

Cuz I got this goddamn cerebral contraction

And I can’t get no satisfaction

I need public television …

Unfortunately for Mr. Lehrer, The Mice broke up. But maybe he can get Death Cab for Cutie to cover it for the NewsHour theme song. Tonight, the most subversive documentary programming on network TV: America’s Funniest Home Videos. [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, April 23

* To the future captain of the NYTV column, we bequeath the 12-inch Sanyo TV set with an old episode of Tucker Carlson Unfiltered in the VHS player.

Sorry about that. [WNET, 13, 12:30 a.m.]

Sunday, April 24

o Enough about white men who read news off teleprompters!

Let’s move on to white men directing lesbian TV sex dramas, as reported by special correspondent Suzy Hansen. [Warning: If you’re Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, DO NOT READ THIS!]

The nationwide sexual enlightenment thanks to Showtime’s The L Word continues.

In the April 17 episode, fans watched as Latina character Carmen (Sarah Shahi) got out of the shower and straddled her recovering-straight lover Jenny (Mia Kirshner), who was sitting on the toilet. “I need to pee, too,” Carmen whispered. And so she did.

Shower scenes are nothing new for premium-cable drama. But a golden-shower scene?

“That was sooooo gross,” one poster wrote, alarmed, on Showtime’s official message board, which was inundated with postings on the subject. Other viewers were mystified. “I guess that I am a total loser because I don’t understand the bathroom scene,” another thread began. On Afterellen.com, a commentary site for lesbian and bisexual women, the recap of the scene read: “Either Carmen is fucking Jenny while Jenny pees, or Carmen is peeing while Jenny pees.”

According to Ilene Chaiken, the show’s creator, there was no either/or about it. “I’m not all that well-versed in water sports,” Ms. Chaiken said. “But this is a uniquely lesbian sex act. First, [the director Tony Goldwyn] thought, ‘O.K., she’s peeing between her legs and that’s sexy.’ Then, when he realized that she was using the peeing as part of the sex act-that it was direct stimulation-that blew him away.”

Besides being directed by Mr. Goldwyn, the episode was written by another man, David Stenn. Both have worked on L Word episodes before. But viewers prone to broad generalizations and gross stereotypes could have been forgiven for suspecting the influence of Y chromosomes on the show: Besides the two-on-the-toilet business, the other sex scenes were unusually long, glowy and beatific in that late-night soft-core way. Phalluses figured prominently in the plot-the bisexual character, Alice, begged her partner, Dana, to wear a strap-on, and a sex-store owner rhapsodized about the many variations of dildos. And a pregnant character had an irrational breakdown that was later attributed to “hormones.”

Ms Chaiken said that many women, including herself, had a hand in shaping the golden-shower show. She wouldn’t say who had come up with the idea for the toilet scene.

She did, however, note Mr. Goldwyn’s curiosity about the act.

“There is a thing that happens when straight men direct the show,” Ms. Chaiken said. “Straight men take an approach to it that’s different than women. They get really fascinated by the nuances of lesbian sex. They say, ‘Oh my god, is that possible?’ That’s happened with Tony, and it’s happened with Burr Steers, another director. Tony just gets kind of thrilled and delighted-but not in a salacious way.”

(Mr. Goldwyn referred all questions about the episode to Ms. Chaiken.)

Ms. Chaiken laughed dismissively at the idea that a masculine viewpoint had affected the scene or the show. “I don’t ascribe it to a particular male sensibility,” she said. “And the hormonal breakdown scene was a lesbian conception.”

-Suzy Hansen

[Showtime, 48, 9 p.m.]

Monday, April 25

$ These are godawful times for the TV news business-we were always so depressed at NYTV!-so it’s easy to conclude that it’s all downhill from here. Looking for answers-for closure, really-we turned to former NBC News anchor and all-around TV legend Tom Brokaw for some wisdom.

“For all of the complaints about Fox, cable-news feeding frenzies, reality overload, remember this: There’s also Discovery, History, the Beeb, more Sunday talk, Lehrer, Frontline, C-Span, etc.,” said Mr. Brokaw, via e-mail on Monday, April 18. “The viewer also has a role. Remote controls have channel selection and off-on switches.”

Mr. Brokaw added that he was currently working on three documentaries, but he couldn’t talk about them yet. However, he was departing this week for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Thanks for that report, Mr. Brokaw.

Tonight on NBC, the original Apprentice-that is, Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News. Is it just us, or does Mr. Williams seem like the genetic result of crossing Jimmy Stewart, Paul Lynde and a tangerine? [WNBC, 4, 6:30 p.m.]

Tuesday, April 26

$ Tonight, you can turn on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and just let the laughter and tears come pouring out. We know we will. [WNBC, 4, 11:35 p.m.]

And with that, our time at NYTV is up. We’re folding up the bunny ears, packing up the Roone Arledge autobiography and skedaddling. Godspeed, Peter Jennings.