TV’s No. 1 news magazine scores another coup with Obama interview

[25 March 2009]

By Ellen Gray

Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

You’d think Steve Kroft, of all people, wouldn’t need to get out more.

But in his interview with President Barack Obama, the correspondent for CBS’ “60 Minutes” Sunday night presented the point of view of potentially bonus-deprived Wall Street types - an argument that they’re probably not used to hearing these days outside their own well-guarded enclaves.

“They need to spend a little time outside of New York,” Obama told Kroft, who spoke of people who might be unwilling to keep their jobs if faced with pay of as little as $250,000 a year. The president recommended North Dakota, which certainly seems pleasanter than the destination some viewers might have been suggesting at this point.

“Gosh, I don’t think it’s me being anti-Wall Street just to point out that the best and the brightest didn’t do that well” and that maybe incentives need to be rethought, Obama added in a wide-ranging interview in which he sometimes appeared more relaxed than Kroft, who’s interviewed him for the program several times.

It may feel as if the president’s selling his economic strategy the way Will Smith or George Clooney sell their movies, but in following up last week’s visit to “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” with his first appearance as president on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” he’s going where the people are.

Just as the presidential campaign pumped new life into NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” the combination of a new administration and a hurting economy seems to have done the same for “60 Minutes.”

Now in its 41st season, television’s longest-running prime-time news magazine finds itself back in Nielsen’s Top 10, with a season-to-date average of nearly 14.8 million viewers, up more than a million from this time last year. By contrast, the next-highest-rated news magazines, ABC’s “20/20” and CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery,” are tied for 66th place, with just under 7 million viewers apiece.

So far, the season’s ratings high point has been Nov. 16, when an estimated 25.1 million tuned in to see the new president-elect and his wife, Michelle, but viewer interest has extended beyond the first family.

With nearly 13 million viewers for last week’s interview with Ben Bernanke, a rare TV appearance by a Federal Reserve chairman, it’s safe to say the audience for his relatively plain talk about the financial bailout wasn’t just the tuning fork we call Wall Street.

And though any news show could have scored with the crew from “The Miracle on the Hudson,” USAirways clearly wanted to spend its public-relations windfall carefully, choosing “60 Minutes” and Katie Couric for the first interview with Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, captain of Flight 1549, a decision that brought the show 16.74 million viewers, according to a CBS News spokesman.

What makes all this remarkable is that it’s happening at a time when mainstream media had been largely written off. The big story in TV news for the past few weeks has been “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart’s spanking of CNBC, not anything that’s appeared on ABC, CBS or NBC. But while broadcast networks are fighting with cable for smaller and smaller slices of a still very large pie, here’s “60 Minutes,” with a bigger piece than it’s had in a while, doing the kind of long, sometimes complicated stories no one’s supposed to have time for anymore.

“We do what we do well, and it’s gratifying that at this moment in time, we’re doing better because of it,” “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager said in a phone interview Friday afternoon as he headed toward the White House to work on Kroft’s Oval Office interview.

“I’m proud that we stuck to our guns. If someone said to us, you have to tart it up ... we couldn’t,” he said. “We’re not the right people.”

Is the show doing anything differently?

“Yes, because of the times,” Fager said. “Most of our news people, and really a lot of us come from hard news. ... We’ve always had an appetite to cover the big story. We’re just doing more of it and in large part because there are just more big stories to cover.”

He’s proudest, he said, of “the economic stories that we’ve done that have been difficult to tell.”

“A lot of it has been just really hard reporting on difficult subjects.”

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