Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In Memoriam: TV News Giant Don Hewitt

Without Don Hewitt, there would be no KobreGuide.

Hewitt, who died today at 86, single-handedly invented not just TV news but also the TV newsmagazine, arguably the progenitor of the highest quality videojournalism stories showcased on KobreGuide.

By the time he started CBS's '60 Minutes' stopwatch ticking in 1968, Hewitt's accomplishments were already monumental:

In 1948, Hewitt directed the first network television newscast (featuring Douglas Edwards).

In 1960, he produced the first televised presidential debate (Kennedy vs. Nixon).

In 1963, he created the first half-hour network newscast ('CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite').

Hewitt's technical innovations abounded: cue cards for newsreaders (forerunner of today's TelePrompTer); "supers" or type in the lower third of the TV screen; and all the now-familiar camera positions and angles still used to cover news events and political conventions today.

But Hewitt's crowning achievement was envisioning and executing a TV version of Life magazine, unabashedly combining in-depth celebrity profiles with hard-hitting news investigations. He went on to produce '60 Minutes' for 36 years, during which time it became the biggest hit in the medium’s history.

A Sunday evening fixture, '60 Minutes' ranked among the top 10 primetime shows for more than two decades, and was TV's top-rated show four times, most recently in 1992-93. At its peak, in the 1979-1980 television season, it was seen in an estimated 28 million homes. It has since maintained a spot in the Top 20, an unparalelled stretch of more than 30 years.

Its popularity was matched only by its excellence. Under Hewitt's stewardship, which ended in 2004, '60 Minutes' won 73 Emmys, 13 DuPont/Columbia University Awards and nine Peabody Awards.

As with the best videojournalism it eventually spawned, its secret formula consisted of marrying the highest quality visuals and journalism. Instead of following the conventional TV wisdom of putting words to pictures, Hewitt pioneered the concept of putting pictures to words.

But the ingredient that most distinguishes '60 Minutes' -- and, likewise, the most outstanding videojournalism today -- can be found in the title of Hewitt's own 2001 autobiography, 'Tell Me a Story.'

The driving force behind Hewitt's new mini-documentary format was its incorporation of old-fashioned showbiz principles, as he'd be the first to brag about. At the heart of every '60 Minutes' segment is a solid story, with a strong protagonist, a dramatic hook, and a compelling narrative arc that keeps audiences informed and, yes, enthralled.

“We could make the news entertaining, without compromising our integrity,” he wrote. "The formula is simple, and it's reduced to four words every kid in the world knows: Tell me a story. It's that easy."

This Sunday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. '60 Minutes' correspondents will devote the entire hour to their boss and his lasting contributions to the television news industry. It's a helluva story.

CBS News obit here; New York Times obit here.

First '60 Minutes':

Don Hewitt on Creating '60 Minutes':

Don Hewitt's Obituary:

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