After months of arm-twisting, key CBS News executives have overcome their skepticism and agreed to proceed with developing a second weekly edition of "60 Minutes," the oldest and most successful news program in television, people close to those executives said Thursday.
Don Hewitt, who has been the executive producer of "60 Minutes" since he created it 30 years ago, is the crucial person whose mind has been changed on the subject, said two people who spoke with him recently.Hewitt did not return a phone call, but a staff member said Hewitt was moving ahead with planning the new program.
No formal announcement has been scheduled, but people inside CBS headquarters and inside CBS News confirmed that development on the project's format and staff had begun and that Hewitt was supervising the project. The major question of when it would start remains unresolved, although it is unlikely it could start before a year from now, these sources said.
None of the five current "60 Minutes" correspondents will participate in the new program, as they told Mel Karmazin, the president and chief operating officer of CBS, in a meeting June 8.
Until now, Hewitt has agreed with the program's correspondents that a second edition could not be as well produced week in and week out as the original, Sunday-night program and that to attempt to produce a second program would dilute the "60 Minutes" reputation.
But Karmazin and Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS Television who is responsible for entertainment and news programming, both argued vigorously that a second edition of the popular news program would help the network's Nielsen ratings and would also help the news division compete for attention with ABC News and NBC News, which have been increasing the number of news magazines they produce.
NBC, a unit of General Electric Co., has expanded "Dateline" to four nights and plans to add a fifth night next season, and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC has folded "Prime Time Live" into "20/20" and will broadcast three nights of that program starting in the fall. These programs have helped NBC and ABC fill out their schedules with proven ratings winners on nights when entertainment shows have not done well.
Last week, the Tuesday edition of "Dateline" was the No. 1-rated show on television, although most entertainment programs are now in summer reruns.
Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, has been listening to both the "60 Minutes" objections and the entertainment division's enthusiasm, trying to negotiate a solution acceptable to both, people close to him said.
Heyward would say only that the idea was "still under active discussion," adding, "I've asked the people involved to discuss it inside the shop only and not in the press, so it behooves me to follow that rule as well."
Moonves was traveling outside the country and could not be reached for comment.
The news of the plans was reported last week in The Hollywood Reporter.
According to people inside CBS News, Jeffrey Fager, the executive producer of "Evening News with Dan Rather," is the leading candidate to serve as executive producer of the new installment of "60 Minutes," and if he accepted the role, Al Ortiz, CBS News' Washington bureau chief, would replace Fager.
Ever since the idea of a second edition was first raised last fall, Hewitt has said the key problem would be finding enough qualified producers capable of crafting the in-depth, substantive pieces the program is noted for.
"It's not that hard to find correspondents but to find 20 good producers worth their salt is extremely difficult," he said about six months ago.
Candidates for correspondents' roles, people at CBS said, include Bob Simon, the network's correspondent in the Middle East, who already contributes several pieces a year to "60 Minutes"; Scott Pelley, CBS' White House correspondent, and Jim Stewart, who covers the Justice Department.
One person unlikely to join the new program is Bryant Gumbel, the high-profile former anchor of NBC's "Today" show, who joined CBS a year ago and has been anchoring his own news magazine, "Public Eye."
Although it has had mediocre Nielsen ratings, Heyward has said he is committed to giving Gumbel time to improve it. However, the show is not on CBS's fall schedule.
One member of the current "60 Minutes" staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the program was being informally called "60 Minutes Junior," because one idea for it was to use correspondents in their 30s and 40s who could be trained by Hewitt and others to succeed the present "60 Minutes" correspondents.