Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
It looked fairly certain that Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin were not going to make the 10th anniversary party of "60 Minutes," the hugely successful CBS TV news magazine, even though both were among the leagues of newsmakers who have appeared on the show and thus got invited.
"That's alright," chuckled CBS News President Richard Salant. "At 9 we'll move the whole party to Camp David." He was joking. And moving the party to Camp David from the Four Seasons restaurant where it was held Tuesday night could hardly have made it any more magnificent a media event about a media event than it already was.
True, the list of no-shows among the invited guests was perhaps more impressive than the shows. Woody Allen and Richard M. Nixon were among the many who just didn't manage to drop by for a drink and a shrimp, Rare is the party on the planet Earth, however, that can bring together the likes of William F. Buckley Jr. and Gene McCarthy, Ilie Nastase and Kurt Vonnegut, G. Gordon Liddy and New York Mayor Ed Koch, Beverly Sills, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg and Eubie Blake. This one did.
"60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt told all the guests they were "superstars," but some of them were as much victims of "60 Minutes" as heroes. Norman Lear, who revolutionized television comedy on the same network "60 Minutes" is on, recalled that, "Mike Wallace did try to skewer me" when Lear was on the show a few years ago. And designer Emilio Pucci said he was still bitter about the correspondent from a European news agency who had interviewed him for the program.
Ah, but the sublime honor of being gored by a maker of superstars that is also a smash hit! It tends to enhance one's celebrity rather than promote one's notoriety. The way "60 Minutes" perpetually sets up ripe adversary situations, and the slick, showy way it pokes fingers have helped make it the addictive institution that it is. Whatever its occasional excesses, the program is a triumph of essentially chivalrous and invariably entertaining journalistic manipulation.
And then, of course, there is the sincerest form of flattery. On Sunday night, a re-run of "60 Minutes" did better than new additions of the other networks' magazine shows - the ticky-tacky "20/20" on ABC and the spunky "Weekend" on NBC. As it happens, Salant was among those watching "Weekend."
Hewitt, a brilliant and volatile producer, said he was not much concerned with the competition from the other networks. "Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I never think about '20/20,'" Hewitt said. "'Weekend' could develop into something in time, I think." He was asked to account for the tremendous popularity of his program, which has made more appearances in the top 10 of network ratings than any news program in television history. Hewitt has it all figured out.
"Look," he said, "on television you've got guys playing cowboys, you've got guys playing cops, you've got guys playing doctors. '60 Minutes' is a show about three reporters. And Dan Rather, Mike Wallace and Morley Safer are better, and more fascinating just being themselves than Redford and Hoffman ever could hope to have been playing Woodward and Bernstein."
"Every Sunday millions of people say to each other, 'Let's see what Dan, Mike and Morley are up to tonight," Hewitt said. In other words, people tune in the adventures of the "60 Minutes" team the way they tune in the adventures of "Charlie's Angels." Except that Wallace, Rather, and Safer are never called upon to flounce about in wet bathing suits.
One of the amazing things about "60 Minutes" is that success has not diminished its vitality. This is especially noteworthy in that CBS far more than the other two networks is infected from top to bottom with outrageous pietistic self-esteem. Even now that black rock, as the network's New York headquarters is called, has become the Gray Lady Down of broadcasting. The network that one made Fred Silverman feel unwelcome because he wasn't classy enough is now groveling for audiences with trashy imitations of Silverman successes and a promotional campaign built around the tasteless slogan, "Turn Us On, We'll Turn You On."
CBS News remains, however, the shiny sparkle in the CBS eye, and "60 Minutes" represents the news department's greatest and splashiest current success. So it was no surprise that CBS Board Chairman William S. Paley referred to it at the party as "the most successful documentary series in the history of broadcasting," and praised it for its "style, wit and tenacity in the best tradition of CBS news." He said it sent "a ripple of pride and courage" through the company, presumably to the tippy, tippy top.
But despite the TV maxim that you never tinker with a hit, there will be some changes on "60 Minutes" this season. Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick and their weekly childish arguments, "Point-Counterpoint," will be seen less often. Harry Reasoner will join the program later in the season. Correspondent and rustic sage Andrew Rooney will also appear regularly.
Mighty and all-powerful as "60 Minutes" may appear to be, it ran into a stubborn obstacle on one of its reports to be seen on the new season premiere this Sunday. Of all things, the report is about network television and among those whom Wallace and hoped to interview but could not get access to was the one and only Freddie Silverman, now president of NBC.
Wallace is not too cheery about being turned down. "That son of a bitch!" he sputtered at the party. "In July, Freddie assured me that he'd do it and then suddenly he was not available to me. As a matter of fact, we could not get Robert Daly (of CBS), Anthony Thomopolous (of ABC) or Freddie Silverman, the three men who program network TV, to talk to us on camera about network TV! "It's such horse - - -.
The entrance of Paley turned the already overcrowded room into media bedlam about midway through the party Tuesday night. Paley walked through the crowd and up a flight of stairs which were then immediately roped off, as if to prevent the master from having to mingle with his subjects. But it turned out that the velvet ropes were for the protection of a big stopwatch cake, which, when it was wheeled out by waiters, almost sent Dan Rather tumbling backwards into a gigantic potted plant.
And although "60 Minutes" sometimes seems to be slicing up pieces of sacrificial cake for its enormous national audience each week, the fact that a program with no featured bouncing bosoms or wan punk dreamboats regularly makes it into the top 10 is one of those tiny little redemptive encouragements in American television. "For this season, we've got more good stories in the bank than we've ever had," Hewitt promised. And yet he also said that swelled heads and self-importance are not likely pitfalls for "60 Minutes" no matter how successful it gets.
"I'd just throw out anybody who takes himself too seriously," Hewitt said. "My pet peeve in this world is news guys who think they belong to the priesthood."
But, let's face it, if it were the priesthood, Hewitt would have cornered the market on bishops, cardinals and candidates for the papacy. "60 Minutes" has become one of Sunday's religious rituals for the United States of America.