Don Hewitt

Don Hewitt

Don Hewitt, the innovative television news pioneer who changed the face of broadcast journalism in 1968 as the creator and executive producer of "60 Minutes," the long-running CBS News powerhouse that launched the TV newsmagazine genre and turned a ticking stopwatch into a journalistic icon, died today. He was 86.

Hewitt, who spent more than 60 years at CBS and shared or individually won an array of honors, including Emmy and Peabody awards, died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., the network announced.

In a television career that began in 1948 when he began his association with CBS as an associate director on the network's evening news show, Hewitt's numerous accomplishments earned him a place in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame in 1990.

Among them:

He produced and directed what ultimately became known as "Douglas Edwards With the News" from 1949 to 1962 and was executive producer the first year of the ensuing "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite," during which the traditional 15-minute news broadcast was expanded to 30 minutes.

In the 1950s, he produced and directed CBS News programs such as Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now" and "Person to Person," as well as the prestigious cultural series "Omnibus."

He also directed CBS' early coverage of the national political conventions, beginning with the first televised convention in 1948.

And more famously, he produced and directed the first televised presidential debate in history between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960, in which Nixon ignored Hewitt's offer of the services of a makeup artist. The historic broadcast established the power of television in national politics.

Then, after heading a new documentary unit at CBS in the mid-1960s, Hewitt created his most successful, acclaimed and profitable program, which he executive-produced for 36 years.

"Good evening. This is '60 Minutes,' " Harry Reasoner said into the camera at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 1968.

With fellow correspondent Mike Wallace seated next to him, Reasoner went on to explain the concept of the new show: "It's a kind of a magazine for television, which means it has the flexibility and diversity of a magazine, adapted to broadcast journalism."

CBS had so little faith in the poorly rated new program that it initially aired it on alternate Tuesday nights. It took nearly a decade before the Emmy-winning, critically acclaimed show finished a season in the Nielsen Top 20 programs (at No. 18).

Then, in late November 1978 -- nearly three years after moving to its permanent 7 p.m. Sunday time slot, "60 Minutes" was the week's top-rated prime-time television show in America.

It was the first time a regularly scheduled news or public affairs program had ever reached that pinnacle -- the famous "60 Minutes" mix of exposes, human interest features and profiles becoming a weekly ritual for millions of Americans.

In May 1980, "60 Minutes" was the top show of the 1979-80 season -- a feat it would achieve five times during Hewitt's reign.

"To everyone's surprise, '60 Minutes' suddenly became a No. 1 hit show," professor Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, told The Times in 2005.

"This thing was battling it out for the top spot with 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty,' " said Thompson. "I don't think before that there was ever an idea that a nonfiction collection of news documentaries was going to be able to play in the same ring with 'Who shot J.R.?' "

Hewitt, Thompson said, "had the very rare combination of being a solid, dogged journalist" who also was greatly adept "at old-fashioned show business: He had extraordinary instincts on what an audience wanted -- how to keep people in front of the screen."

As Hewitt once told Rolling Stone magazine, "The trick is to grab the viewer by the throat, not let his mind wander and start thinking about what else might be going on."

Once characterized in the Washington Post as loud, pugnacious, spleeny "and having the attention span of a hummingbird," Hewitt shunned formal editorial meetings -- "If we had meetings, the show would look like a meeting," he reasoned -- and was known for telling his correspondents and producers to "just tell me a story."

Behind the scenes, Hewitt also was well-known for his screaming matches with his big-name correspondents, a form of verbal combat that the urbane Morley Safer once described as "mutual torture sessions."

Former Times television critic Howard Rosenberg once described Hewitt as "an extraordinary TV bossman/showman, a tough, blunt, imaginative and spit-in-your-eye deliverer of highly watchable journalism and highly bankable ratings."

In 2004, 36 years after launching the much-copied "60 Minutes," the 81-year-old Hewitt was forced to turn over the reins to 49-year-old Jeffrey Fager.

Despite his reluctant departure from "60 Minutes," Hewitt did not retire. He simply moved a floor below his ninth-floor office on West 57th Street in Manhattan,where he continued as executive producer of CBS News. In recent years, he was involved in projects outside of CBS.

He is survived by his third wife, former television news correspondent Marilyn Berger; his sons, Steven and Jeffrey; his daughters, Lisa Cassara and Jilian Childers Hewitt; and three grandchildren.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com