- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2002

How do you say goodbye to a television legend who's not ready to say goodbye? There's no easy answer to that question, being asked quietly these days in the halls of CBS News about Don Hewitt, for whom the label "legend" is befitting.
Mr. Hewitt directed the first network television newscast. In 1960, he produced the first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. He started "60 Minutes" in 1968 inventing the newsmagazine concept in the process and has been the executive producer for every one of its broadcasts.
Dec. 14 is his 80th birthday.
With his age in mind, CBS executives gingerly have begun planning for a "60 Minutes" without Mr. Hewitt. They have broached the subject of a transition with him, but by some accounts, it hasn't gone well.
Mr. Hewitt complained last month to colleagues that he is being pushed out, according to USA Today. (He wouldn't talk with Associated Press about his future.) CBS insists that's not the case and has given no timetable for a change but says it would be foolish to ignore actuarial tables and not consider the future.
The delicate situation remains unresolved.
CBS News President Andrew Heyward would not talk about his discussions with Mr. Hewitt but praised the show for a great start to its 35th season.
"Don and I both share a desire to secure the program's quality and success forever, and I certainly hope that Don is part of CBS for as long as he wants to be," Mr. Heyward says.
The very idea of retirement seems to mortify the old lions at "60 Minutes." Mike Wallace, 84, talked about slowing down and doing fewer stories for so many years it became a joke among those who knew him.
This year, though, he seems to be serious; he agreed to a new contract that reflects a lightened workload by paying him less.
Mr. Hewitt, for his part, has said repeatedly that he has no desire to do anything else.
"One of these days, everybody is going to die, and I want to die at my desk," he said at age 77, when he signed a four-year contract extension. "I do not want to die in a canoe or on a tennis court or a golf course. This is my life."
The colorful Mr. Hewitt has always run a volatile shop, with shouting matches over stories not unusual. He does not step lightly around egos.
"Everyone feeds off his enthusiasm," says Tom Bettag, executive producer of ABC's "Nightline," who worked at "60 Minutes" 20 years ago. "There is no drug as good as having him say, 'Your piece is great.' People would kill for that."
There's no indication that age has taken a toll on Mr. Hewitt's ability.
The resident "60 Minutes" curmudgeon, Andy Rooney, marvels that just in the past week, Mr. Hewitt made a simple suggestion of a word change that improved a commentary immeasurably.
"He is absolutely at the top of his game," says Mr. Rooney, 83. "I see no diminution. I think that about myself, too. I suppose I'd be the last to know if my brain went, but somebody will tell me."
Though the newsmagazine may not have lost its fastball, some within CBS News believe those at "60 Minutes" did not react as nimbly as other colleagues in the aftermath of last year's terrorist attacks.
"60 Minutes" remains the most popular newsmagazine on the air, but its ratings have slipped since the days when it was the top-rated show on television. (It's No. 21 so far this season.) The show still makes money for CBS, but because of lower ratings and higher salaries for its veteran staff, it's no longer wildly profitable. The audience generally skews as old as its correspondents.
For all the talk of a transition plan, CBS may already have the pieces in place.
Former "60 Minutes" producer Jeff Fager is running the highly regarded "60 Minutes II" and is considered Mr. Hewitt's most likely successor. He would come into the show already known and respected.
"If Don dropped dead tomorrow, there are people right there who could do it," Mr. Rooney says. "It isn't as if they'd be lost."
There's no real urgency to the situation; Mr. Hewitt's contract runs through the 2003-04 television season. CBS, though, usually doesn't leave such things to the last minute.
Richard Wald, a longtime ABC and NBC news executive who teaches at Columbia University, says he is glad he's not in Mr. Heyward's position.
"You don't want to visibly hurt the feelings of the guy who brought you to the dance," Mr. Wald says. "And he did '60 Minutes' and all that it has represented over the years is a major piece of the success of the network. You can't ignore that or treat it cavalierly.
"On the other hand, you can't just let it ride," he says. "I don't know how you do that. It's one of those impossible situations."

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