In television news, booking the hottest guest of the moment — known in the trade as ”the get” — is frequently more important than what the get actually says once he or she is gotten. So it was on the March 31 edition of 60 Minutes II, when Dan Rather landed a big one — as Dr. Seuss might have rhymed it, the biggest get the show ever had yet. Rather’s sit-down with President Bill Clinton was served in two handy 15-minute chunks, the TV equivalent of Bill’s now-famous compartmentalization: first segment, a no-new-news run-down on the NATO air strikes on Kosovo; second segment, an exploration of what Rather termed ”the health of our First Family.” Clinton said, roughly: Well, they’re doing as well as expected, given what a jackanapes I’ve been. (And let me make it clear that he was referring to Hillary and Chelsea at that point, not displaced ethnic Albanians.)
From there, it was on to a 60 Minutes II regular feature: An update of an old 60 Minutes segment — a ”classic,” they’re bold enough to call it — and this one was a 1975 report on Judy Garland. You’d think there wouldn’t be much to update about the old girl, seeing as how she’d already been dead for six years when the original story aired. But the 60 Minutes II folks managed to drag Garland daughters Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft in front of the cameras for separate interviews and, via the fierce wiles of investigative journalism, established that the two have not spoken to each other in three years. A theme for the evening had emerged: famous fractured families.
Then 60 Minutes II concluded, as it usually does, with a little segment it likes to call ”Uncommon Sense,” featuring former stand-up Jimmy Tingle. The numbing Tingle came out this night as being against using state-subsidized gambling to pay for education. His punchline? ”If gambling is so good for education, how come nobody ever graduates from the University of Atlantic City?” As comic relief at the end of this show, Tingle makes Andy Rooney look more daring a humorist than Chris Rock.
The show I just picked apart was II‘s most high profile, and also its most uneven to date. It bears saying that it’s tough pulling off a decent newsmag. They’re produced on the cheap (the chief reason there are so damn many of them) and watered down by their networks’ insistence that they compete with entertainment programming for ratings. That’s why, say, ABC’s 20/20 will expend nearly half its hour, as it did April 5, on ”Baby From Beyond,” about a child conceived with the sperm of a dad who’d been dead nearly three years. The report, overseen with Emmy-worthy seriousness by cohosts Connie Chung and Charles Gibson, managed to be heart tugging, ridiculous, and macabre all at once. This 20/20 concluded with a segment on Kosovar refugees — footage of weeping, exhausted people and separated families. It was rendered shamelessly sentimental by its lack of hard news or analytical context.
What distinguishes the Wednesday 60 Minutes franchise from that sort of tabloid-mongering fodder is the original 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt’s version of the separation of church and state: On both 60 Minutes, hard-news stories are distinct from the series’ agreeably poky celeb profiles. 60 Minutes II executive producer Jeff Fager has reproduced this formula nicely, shrewdly using the ”classic” updates as a bridge to the Sunday show (most of them are a lot more fun than the Garland one — it’s a kick to see how former 60 subjects have aged, reformed, or blossomed). But Fager’s cleverest touch is his hiring of Charlie Rose, the sleek PBS carpetbagger who, for example, extracted a marvelous interview from Warren Beatty on the March 10 edition, even managing to coax the now-married Beatty to take him to Beatty’s old Hollywood bachelor pad and reminisce about the sort of conquests Bill Clinton must only dream about in non-policy-wonk moments.
Of the other II correspondents, Vicki Mabrey and Bob Simon possess proper Minutes mettle. In particular, Simon’s March 10 report on the 1995 Serbian assault on the Muslim population of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica was a true public service, and all the more impressive for airing before the present NATO air strikes, when few TV news outlets were digging out reports in that area.
Most weeks, 60 Minutes II comes in a healthy second to ABC’s The Drew Carey Show, and often wins its time period the second half hour. Although that means more people are around to watch the low-voltage Tingle — for whom I notice even correspondent Rather is having increasing trouble mustering a grin — it also proves that a spin-off can be a worthy successor to what has always seemed a unique original. B