How '60 Minutes' Turned Back the Clock

Brian Stelter at The New York Times reports that the ratings for 60 Minutes have been fantastic this year, partly because of a youth movement in the show's talent. But perhaps it's the show itself that got younger?

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Brian Stelter at The New York Times reports that the ratings for 60 Minutes have been fantastic this year, partly because of a youth movement in the show's talent. But perhaps it's the show itself that got younger?

The relatively ancient ages of the 60 Minutes reporting crew has been a running joke for decades (so you can imagine how old they are now), but as Stetler's piece lays out the producers have quietly made an effort to weave in new faces, grooming its own replacement generation of correspondents. Young(er) media stars like Anderson Cooper and Lara Logan have upped the hipness quotient and they do have their devoted fans, but it seems doubtful to us that people are staying put on the couch after Sunday afternoon football just because the cute correspondent shows up in the opening credits. It's still about the stories that show up in the teaser commercials. Plus, with sports creeping later and later into the evening, the show rarely starts on time, rendering DVR placement useless. You need that a solid hook.
We decided to take a quick survey of the last few years of 60 Minutes story topics, with a focus on the "celebrity" profile subjects that are a staple of the long-running newsmagazine. While the reported news stories will always reflect the important issues of their time, it's the people that get chosen for one-on-one features and personal tales that tell you what the producers really think of their audience? Does the show think that fans will sit still for thoughtful discussion pieces with well-known newsmakers or will any actor with a blockbuster to promote satisfy the masses?
Subjects: Ahemd Chalabi, FBI Director Louis Freeh, U2, Michael Jordan, Prince Charles, Howard Stern, Tony Romo, Tiger Woods, James Blake, Morgan Freeman, Olympian Bode Miller, Felicity Huffman, Jamie Oliver, golfer Michelle Wie, Stephen Colbert, John Daly, Tom Brady
Analysis: A pretty good mix actually, but one the betrays a criticism mentioned in Stelter's piece: the show's growing obsession with sport stars. Since 60 Mintues airs after Sunday football during the first half of its season, this seems to be the beginning of a cynical ploy to keep groggy football fans from picking up the remote. A quick survey of the news stories from that season also shows that producers were skewing toward youth topics, but in a way that is meant to scare their parents (underage drinking, Grand Theft Auto) rather than reel in the younger viewers.
Ideal viewer: Neurotic middle-aged parents with pre-teens kids.
Subjects: Condoleezza Rice, Simon Cowell, Barry Diller, Vanessa Redgrave, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mitt Romney, Lou Dobbs, Don Imus, John McCain, John & Elizabeth Edwards, Norah Jones, Helen Mirren, Joe Namath, Kenny Chesney, Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis
Analysis: This is your parents' 60 Minutes. When Simon Cowell is the youngest and hippest cat in the room, you've got problems. Boring politicians, a lot of angry white men, two actresses over 60, and Joe Namath! Even kids who play football for Notre Dame aren't watching a Charile Weis profile. Note that his was also the year that Sunday Night Football moved from cable over to NBC primetime. While it doesn't air directly opposite 60 Minutes, the challenge of holding on to that Sunday afternoon football crowd would get a lot of tougher for CBS in the coming years.
Ideal viewer: Grandparents who fall asleep in their chairs after dinner.
Subjects: Football player Vince Young, Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles, Will Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Roger Clemens, Dennis Quaid, Antonin Scalia, Bon Jovi, Alec Baldwin
Analysis: This was the season we got our first "millennials" story, but the subjects still skewed decidedly toward young heartthrobs ... of 15 years earlier. Sports stars begin to make a comeback, of course, but the obsession with aging rockers starts to seem a little forced. You're embarrassing us, Dad.
Ideal viewer: People who went to high school in 1980s and wish they were still there.
Subjects: Michael Vick, Anna Wintour, baseball statistician Bill James, Steve Wynn, LeBron James, Coldplay, Wyclef Jean, Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Barney Frank, Julian Schnabel, Michael Phelps, Ted Turner, T. Boone Pickens.
Analysis: The sport star trend kicks into overdrive during this season, with almost half the celebrity-style profiles being dedicated to them. The musicians and even the business folks get a little more interesting, but still skew to the established lions of industry.
Ideal viewer: Friday Night Lights fans; actual high school football coaches
Subjects: Jimmy Carter, John Gotti Jr., conductor Gustavo Dudamel, chef Jose Andres, Conan O'Brien, Al Pacino, director Kathryn Bigelow, Alec Baldwin, Rick Gervais, disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy, James Cameron, Andre Agassi, Tyler Perry, Drew Barrymore.
Analysis: Sport stars were nearly excised this season (unless they had a book to plug) in favor of actors everyone knows already and obscure foreigners whose names you can still drop to impress sophisticated partygoers.
Ideal viewer: East coast elitists who tell people their favorite TV channel is BBC America.
Subjects: Jerry Jones, Al Sharpton, race horse of the year, Zenyatta, Albert Pujols, Christopher Hitchens, Lady Gaga, John Boehner, Mark Zuckerberg, John Paul Stevens, Mark Wahlberg, Manny Pacquiao, Jane Goodall
Analysis: The balance between young and hip vs. old and boring really starts to improve this year as Gaga and Zuckerberg clue parents into what their young children are up to, Hitchens, Stevens and Goodall still make viewers feel like their college degrees weren't wasted. The other celebrities are slightly cooler than usual, but still way too old for anyone to post about on Facebook.
Ideal viewer: Overeducated professionals who think grown men hitting each other is "a savage ballet."
Subjects: South Park creators Trey Parker & Matt Stone, sports agent Drew Rosenhaus, Vincent van Gogh (sorta), Steve Jobs, Taylor Swift, Christine LaGarde, Angelina Jolie, Michael Buble, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Adele, Aerosmith, Elon Musk, Novak Djokovic, polo star Ignacio "Nacho" Figueras, Michael Phelps (again)
Analysis: Jackpot. The preference for sports stars over other pop culture icons is still evident, but the inclusion of the ruggedly obscure Djokovic and Figueras shows them branching out from the usual ESPN-flavored mix. Jolie and Buble obviously transcend a lot of age barriers and Adele and Taylor Swift are as big as it gets right now. The show lost two of its own icons in Andy Rooney and Mike Wallace this year, but the changing tone of the show became the real passing of the torch to the next generation. A great mix of serious and fun, up-and-comers and established players, plus some ripped dudes without shirts on. It's ratings gold.
Ideal viewer: 22-44 year-old urban professionals with a lot of disposable income.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.