Don Hewitt, who created "60 Minutes" more than three decades ago and regularly vowed to die at his desk, finally agreed yesterday to relinquish his post -- but not for another year and a half.
In a negotiated end to a standoff that threatened to embarrass CBS News, the 80-year-old producer will stay in the saddle until June 2004, then turn over the reins to rising star Jeff Fager, 48, who produces "60 Minutes II." Hewitt's new 10-year contract spares CBS the awkward spectacle of trying to force out the most successful producer in television history.
"If it were all up to me," Hewitt admitted, "I might have opted for a couple more years, maybe three. It wasn't. But what was offered to me in return for stepping aside gracefully is dynamite. It keeps me at the company."
While "60 Minutes" remains television's top-rated newsmagazine show, the perennial Top 10 program has slipped this season to No. 17 overall, averaging 14 million viewers, and some at CBS believe the strong-willed Hewitt lost half a step over the last couple of years.
"I'm not getting older," Hewitt said. "The audience is getting younger."
Hewitt, who will become a troubleshooting executive producer for the network next year, acknowledged that "60 Minutes" could use an infusion of younger viewers. "The trick is to help them devise a broadcast that brings a new demographic in without losing the old one," he said. "That ain't easy, but it can be done."
In December, Hewitt made clear he would not go quietly after the New York Times reported that the CBS brass wanted him to step down.
CBS News President Andrew Heyward said the delayed handoff would give him time to pick a new boss for "60 Minutes II." "I don't think this was ever as confrontational as one might have thought from the coverage," he said. "This is not a case of anybody getting the better of anybody else."
Fager is something of a Hewitt protege. "Don Hewitt's like Babe Ruth," Fager said. "These are big shoes to fill. But it's nice he's going to be around for a while. We weren't sure for a while."
As for the aging audience, Fager said: "I don't think the answer is finding some young correspondent right out of school to come on '60 Minutes.' To do the kind of quality storytelling on '60 Minutes,' you have to be in this business a long, long time."
Fager -- who like Hewitt once served as executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" -- has been groomed for the job ever since being named to the "60 Minutes II" Wednesday spinoff, whose 1999 launch was vehemently opposed by Hewitt. "We're of different generations, but we share the same values," Fager said.
One insider said Hewitt's feelings were soothed when Heyward hosted an 80th-birthday party for him at a Manhattan restaurant in December and both CBS President Les Moonves and Mel Karmazin, president of parent company Viacom, showed up.
In language worthy of the State Department, a news release says Hewitt next year will become the network's executive producer under "a multi-year agreement . . . helping to develop and launch new projects, fine-tuning existing ones and lending his tremendous voice and experience to new ways and means of covering news in the 21st century."
As the network debated whether "60 Minutes" needed a change of direction, Hewitt was asked whether he would put Britney Spears on the program. "Of course I would, if she had something to say. In print, you can write about anybody and make them fascinating. You can't do that in television. Dull is dull. I'm not sure the occasional Britney Spears piece is going to change the nature of the audience. You've got to realize who your bread and butter has been."
Since creating the program in 1968, Hewitt and his aging coterie of stars -- including Mike Wallace, 84, Andy Rooney, 83, and Morley Safer, 71 -- have built "60 Minutes" into a hugely profitable Sunday night institution. Every newsmagazine that followed was in some sense a copy of Hewitt's original venture during the Johnson administration.
Hewitt, who has won a slew of awards, joined CBS in 1948 and produced the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate, the first televised faceoff in a presidential campaign, in 1960. He also presided over the 1992 "60 Minutes" appearance by Bill and Hillary Clinton, in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers story, that helped propel the Arkansas governor toward the White House.
Asked about his proudest moments, Hewitt cited the program's role in freeing a Texas convict who was jailed for a fast-food robbery he didn't commit. He also recalled George Burns taking correspondent Ed Bradley to a cemetery and conversing with his late wife, Gracie Allen.
The chief sentiment at CBS seems to be one of relief that the Hewitt melodrama has been resolved. "He seems to be content with this," Wallace said. "This is what he loves to do."
Hewitt said he would spend another year after June 2004 "supervising the transition to make sure the broadcast I invented still exists." He described his future role as "resident pain in the [butt]."
Said Fager: "It's a big office. There's room for both of us."
Asked why his departure was being delayed for so long, Hewitt said: "I think they realized this had to be gradual or it could be traumatic."
"For the broadcast."