The following excerpt comes from Tell Me A Story: 50 Years and 60 Minutes.
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60 Minutes of Prime Time
By 1966 and 1967, I was already starting to think about a new type of personal journalism. The documentaries — CBS Reports, NBC White Paper, and ABC Close Up — all seemed to be the voice of the corporation, and I didn't believe people were interested in hearing from a corporation. They were like newspaper editorials, I thought. Do people really care about the "voice of the newspaper"? They want to read the reporting and the columnists, not the editorials. There was the one-hour format for what amounted to the long form in broadcast journalism, and an hour seemed too long for the personal journalism that was beginning to form in my mind — journalism that might be both compelling and entertaining.
Entertaining? Wasn't that a dirty word when used in connection with the news? Not to me.
I had entered the television age in the era of news as a public service and spent my TV adolescence serving that cause. But I had begun to realize in the '60s that TV news was going to have to pay its own way. Otherwise, it was going to disappear into the sinkhole called The Sunday Afternoon Ghetto, where documentaries and discussion shows could do no harm to the Jackie Gleasons and Lucille Balls who paid the bills and made CBS Television the entertainment conglomerate it had become.
At the same time, Ed Murrow was beginning to realize the same thing — that his and Fred Friendly's See It Now program was not get-ting the respect from the corporate brass they thought it deserved and that in some markets it was being preempted by Amos 'n Andy. What to do about it? The only way Murrow could give them a show that could hold its own against the best the other networks could throw at it would be to get into the ratings game — a game he had roundly condemned as beneath serious journalists. But if we were going to please the corporation — and that was something he knew quite a bit about because he was a member of the CBS hierarchy for a while — it meant playing the game.
Going with the flow was what it was, but it was the only way to "make it" with the people he worked for and the only way to put the kind of money in his pocket that would take care of his wife, Janet, and their son Casey after he was gone. The broadcast he agreed to do was called Person to Person, and it concerned itself each week with visiting the homes of famous people.
We who worked on Ed's prestigious Sunday afternoon broadcast, See It Now, soon saw the public gravitating to Person to Person in the kind of numbers that frequently put it in the top ten while we lan-guished in the cellar. It was John Horne, the TV critic of the New York Herald Tribune, who coined the phrases "high Murrow" and "low Murrow" to distin-guish between the two broadcasts.
Oh my God, I thought. That's the answer. Why not put them together in one broadcast and reap the benefits of being both prestigious and popular? For the first time, there could be a way for a television show to feed the network's soul and, simultaneously, its pocketbook. We could look into Marilyn Monroe's closet so long as we looked into Robert Oppenheimer's laboratory, too. We could make the news entertaining without compromising our integrity. That, in essence, was the genesis of 60 Minutes.
It could be like the old Life magazine, I thought — a family friend in the home of millions of Americans each week, serious and light-hearted in the same issue. The ads didn't interrupt the stories in Life: You'd have a story for a few pages, then some ads, then another story.
We could do the same thing on television, each reporter telling a complete story without interruption, then the commercial break. If we split the public affairs hours into three parts to deal with the viewers' short attention span — not to mention my own — and made it personal journalism in which a reporter takes the viewer along with him on the story, I was willing to bet that we could take informational programming out of the ratings cellar.
I began to tell people at the network about my notion of an hour-long program combining "high Murrow" and "low Murrow." Fred Friendly thought it was a terrible idea, but I was undeterred and kept working on refining and improving the concept. A short time later, Friendly had a run-in with the top network management over their reluctance to preempt afternoon soap operas to carry the Fulbright hearings, in which the Senate probed the conduct of and the whys and wherefores of our presence in Vietnam. Following Friendly's resigna-tion as president of CBS News, Richard S. Salant, who came from the legal department, took over. So I wrote a note to him, asking him why in the hundreds of prime-time minutes of make-believe that CBS beamed into American living rooms each week, the network couldn't find "60 minutes" of prime time to air some reality, produced with the same flair that the entertainment division had become famous for.
Salant, hardly overwhelmed by or even vaguely interested in what I had proposed, told CBS News Vice President Bill Leonard that it was a lousy idea. "That's funny," Leonard said. "That's exactly what Friendly said." Believe it or not, that is how 60 Minutes got born. Because anything Friendly was against, Salant was for — even if it meant turning over a prime time hour each week to me, about whom he felt, at best, lukewarm.
In early 1968, Salant reluctantly put his seal of approval on my proposed broadcast, which took its title from the phrase in my memo, "60 minutes of prime time."