Critics praised the unique program and it won awards right from the beginning, but the move to Sundays proved crucial. After its first full season in the 7:00 P.M. slot, 60 Minutes became a top-20 hit in 1977. The next year, it was a top-10 hit, a rank it would reach 23 straight seasons - a record no other program ever approached. Two years later, in 1980, it was the number one program, a feat it would achieve five times - a record only matched by "All in the Family" and "The Cosby Show."
As Hewitt's correspondents exposed crooks, drilled to the core of a celebrity or interrogated world leaders and newsmakers, 60 Minutes became an unprecedented success, drawing legions of faithful followers who planned their Sundays around the program. Even when CBS lost its NFL contract in 1994, putting its former lead-in audience on another network to compete against it, 60 Minutes was still a huge hit, finishing number six for the 1994-95 season.
Hewitt always had stock answers to questions about what 60 Minutes' secret was. He often told journalists, "It's four words every child knows: Tell me a story."
He sometimes wondered if people flocked to 60 Minutes as to church on Sunday for redemption from a week of watching entertainment programs. He sometimes said it was people's interest in the adventures of his correspondents that made it so compelling. But he also admitted it was the talent of his staff, saying he never hired anyone who wasn't smarter than himself.
Hewitt liked to say that 60 Minutes success was not the best thing to happen to the small screen. Especially later in his life, he railed about how his news magazine changed television for the worse. News programs were never supposed to make money, he argued, and the minute they did, the pressure was on for news to get ratings. The quest for ratings led to more sensational topics on an increasingly larger number of broadcasts. Indeed, as soon as 60 Minutes broke the top 20 in 1977, a parade of imitators began and, at one point in the late '90s, nearly 30 percent of the top 20 programs were news magazines. Hewitt began to say publicly that "behind every news magazine there is a failed sitcom" - the networks were using the format to cover their mistakes, not the news.
But 60 Minutes never really suffered from the glut of competitors, relying on its quality reputation. "It's an institution," Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post television critic Tom Shales told People for a 1995 profile of Hewitt, "and it's twice as good as its nearest imitator."
60 Minutes' audience was also much greater than that of any other news program and attracted the biggest stories, which often made 60 Minutes a shaper of events.
When Gov. Bill Clinton wanted to address questions about marital infidelity plaguing his democratic presidential nomination in 1992, he came to 60 Minutes, where he and his wife, Hillary, appeared on a post-Super Bowl special edition viewed by 34 million people.
His conduct during the interview was widely credited with winning him the nomination and the presidency.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian didn't fare as well when he brought his case for euthanasia to 60 Minutes in 1998.
The tape he made of himself lethally injecting a terminally ill patient shown on the broadcast brought Kevorkian a murder conviction and Hewitt much criticism for putting on what critics called a ratings stunt. It was the first time a "mercy killing" was shown on American television and it spurred debate for weeks - exactly, argued Hewitt, what good journalism was about.
Good journalism could also exonerate the innocent, and 60 Minutes did this many times over the years. When pressed for 60 Minutes' finest hour, Hewitt cited the Lenell Geter story in 1983. Geter, a young man sent to jail for life for a robbery in Texas, was freed after Morley Safer's report discredited evidence and used eyewitnesses to prove he was innocent.
60 Minutes' lowest point, said Hewitt, was the Jeffrey Wigand story, the interview with the highest-ranking tobacco executive to turn whistleblower that was held back by CBS management in fear of a $10 billion lawsuit that could have bankrupted the company. The initial spiking of the interview, in which Wigand revealed tobacco executives knew and covered up the fact that tobacco caused disease, led to an unusual 60 Minutes segment. A portion of it, with Wigand disguised, was broadcast, followed by an unprecedented rebuke of management read on the air by Mike Wallace. A few months later in February 1997, CBS allowed the Wigand interview to be broadcast. A film about the incident, "The Insider," was made in 1998. Hewitt said at the time that he had no choice but to comply with management, or quit in protest, opting instead to "fight another day."
In a 1998 documentary about him, "Don Hewitt: 90 MINUTES on 60 MINUTES," broadcast on the PBS series "American Masters" for his 50th anniversary at CBS News, he allowed that he wasn't proud of his actions during this episode.