Don Hewitt, recognized as a father of modern television news and the creator of the medium's most successful broadcast, 60 Minutes, died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday. He was 86 and had homes in Manhattan and Bridgehampton, New York, where was with family at the time of death.
Hewitt was executive producer of CBS News, the title he took when he stepped down from his post as executive producer of 60 Minutes in 2004.
Hewitt's remarkable career in journalism spanned over 60 years, virtually all of it at CBS. As a young producer/director assisting at the birth of television news, it was usually Hewitt behind the scenes directing legendary CBS News reporters like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, using a playbook he had to write himself. He played an integral role in all of CBS News' coverage of major news events from the late 1940s through the 1960s, putting him in the middle of some of history's biggest events, including one of politics' seminal moments: the first televised presidential debate in 1960.
Hewitt produced and directed coverage for the three networks of the debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, an event that instantly transferred the political king-making powers print news once held to a new and more powerful medium where appearances mattered. Critics have long maintained that Kennedy won the debate because he looked better. As Hewitt recalled in many interviews, he offered makeup to Kennedy first, who refused. Nixon, following Kennedy's cue, also refused. But the suntanned Kennedy was a vigorous contrast to Nixon, whose pasty complexion put his five o'clock shadow in high relief.
Hewitt often rued the day as the first step in the dangerous dance between politicians and the special interests that provide the big money to buy the now crucial political television advertising.
Hewitt also directed the first network television newscast, featuring Douglas Edwards, on May 3, 1948. He was the executive producer of the first half-hour network newscast when the "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite" became the first to go to a 30-minute format on Sept. 2, 1963. Among Hewitt's innovations was the use of cue cards for newsreaders, the electronic version of which, the TelePrompTer, is still used today. He was the first to use "supers" - putting type in the lower third of the television screen. Another invention of Hewitt's was the film "double" - cutting back and forth between two projectors - an editing breakthrough that re-shaped television news. Hewitt also helped develop the positioning of cameras and reporters still used to cover news events, especially political conventions.
Photo Gallery: Don Hewitt 1922 - 2009
Hewitt had seemingly done it all for broadcast news when he topped those achievements by producing his magnum opus, the television news magazine 60 Minutes - a new concept that changed television news forever and became the biggest hit in the medium's history. "His real monument is 60 Minutes," said another broadcasting legend, the late Roone Arledge, when he presented Hewitt with the Founder's Emmy in 1995. "He is truly an innovator in this business…[the news magazine] is an innovative format no one had done before. It's been copied all over the world…He's been a leader in our industry. He has inspired all sorts of people," said Arledge.
Hewitt's idea for 60 Minutes was to break up the traditional hour documentary into a three-segment magazine - a Life of the airwaves.
It would work if he and his team could "package an hour of reality as compellingly as Hollywood packages an hour of make-believe," Hewitt often recalled. His first step was to pick a "white hat" and a "black hat." Hewitt put the black hat on the grand inquisitor, Mike Wallace, and made the avuncular Harry Reasoner the white hat to launch his news magazine on Sept. 24, 1968.