EXCLUSIVE: In its nearly 52 years on the air, 60 Minutes has traveled to war zones and managed through a few of its own internal crises. Nothing in the history of the CBS institution, however, may ever compare with the logistical gauntlet the show has run during COVID-19. Operating remotely in New York City, global epicenter of the pandemic, it has delivered three months of original news broadcasts without access to its nerve center, the main CBS studio on 57th Street. It also has fended off the virus in its own ranks, with several 60 Minutes and CBS News staffers testing positive during the spring, including veteran correspondent Lesley Stahl.
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Viewers have responded. The show ended the official TV season in May with two straight weeks of No. 1 performances in the ratings. Its May 17 episode drew 9.9 million viewers, 18% more than the same week in 2019.
Come Memorial Day, the staff of the show is usually decompressing. In 2020, though, this year to end all years, news continues to erupt and CBS has been eager to inject newly produced original programming into prime time. The decision was therefore made to continue airing original episodes for five extra weeks, something the show has never done before. The last two original 60 Minutes hours before September will air June 21 and June 28. Viewership has remained healthy during the bonus period, with total audiences up about 20% on average over the past three weeks.
Bill Owens, a 17-year veteran of 60 Minutes, was a longtime lieutenant of former executive producer Jeff Fager. He replaced Fager in February 2019, a few months after Fager was ousted amid a series of sexual harassment and misconduct incidents that rocked CBS. Owens spoke with Deadline about his approach to calming the waters at 60 Minutes, guiding the show through the myriad challenges of COVID-19, launching a short-form sibling show on Quibi, and other topics. (The conversation has been condensed and edited.)
DEADLINE: As a viewer, I have to say it’s been pretty amazing to see you figure out how to deliver a strong run of original shows — in sharp-looking high-definition, no less — despite the countless obstacles created by the pandemic. How have you developed this whole new approach on the fly?
BILL OWENS: Week in and week out, we keep looking at each other and saying, ‘We’re two steps ahead of the devil. We did it again somehow.’ We had to develop a theory of how we could produce remotely. We had never done it before. In March, in the moments after CBS had to shut down its building and facilities, our editors, our director, our associate director, the people in our control room and the people who actually cut the stories basically put together packages of the things that they would need to work from home. We wouldn’t be on TV if it wasn’t for the way they planned. It was things like media that was on the hard drives of our Avid edit machines, making Macs and computers at home into editing machines. They were speaking a language that I didn’t understand, but I knew that they thought they could do this. They were very sure of it. It involved literally setting up in people’s kitchens and working remotely, sharing information over the cloud. It had never been tried before. We ran some simple tests and it seemed to work. We had done a story the week before all hell broke loose about preparing for COVID. Then the next week we did the [New Rochelle, NY] outbreak of the first cases. While we were shooting that story, it was kind of a proof of concept.
DEADLINE: You also have the reality of social distancing. How soon did you determine how to adopt distancing both on and off the air?
OWENS: One of our producers, his wife is an obstetrician. She was helpful in getting us to the right people in Westchester County. We were able to explain that we wanted to help share the message, talk about distancing and everything that happens during a lockdown. A new lexicon was getting born around that time. We talked to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that same week. There were two different doctors from the governor’s office who had to clear our crew because 60 Minutes had had some symptomatic patients. They were ill. So, that was tricky. That was the very first 10-foot interview, where Gov. Cuomo is sitting clearly 10 feet away from Scott Pelley. All of our interviews are now done at 10 feet, usually outside.
DEADLINE: Did you ever worry that you’d have to abandon some of the usual signatures of the broadcast just to make sure you got something on the air?
OWENS: During that first week, I was considering what we call the ‘studio,’ when the correspondent is in the studio and they’re in front of the book and they give you the 50-second ‘here’s what our story’s about.’ We didn’t have a place to do that. We were thinking about, would 60 Minutes that first week, would those intros be taped in correspondents’ driveways? Was it going to look like something we had never done? It wouldn’t look like 60 Minutes. We’d try our best. We were thinking about every option. Things were really hour by hour. We were able to find a workspace in Chelsea that has been an excellent partner for us. It was within 24 hours, basically, of us having to be on television. We were operating hour by hour. It’s still the fact. We’ve been trying to use where people are right now to our advantage. Sharyn Alfonsi did a story in Texas about rural medicine and health care and how it was being affected by the pandemic. She’s in Austin and was able to drive all over God’s creation. We did a story where Norah O’Donnell did interviews with GM and Ford remotely, but they were really thought through by the camerapeople. While Norah is basically speaking to a Mac, we still have her camera shooting her in a very traditional 60 Minutes way and the same thing for Mary Barra and Bill Ford in Detroit. Through the magic of editing – we’re not trying to hide the fact we weren’t there, you see them with the computer – you can make it a seamless transition into kind of a more classic 60 Minutes style.
DEADLINE: How quickly did those stories help create a new visual grammar as you went through March and into the rest of the spring?
OWENS: The camerapeople in the field have done an amazing job. You have to really think through the depth of the shot, all of these things along with the editors who were taking in the material in their homes. Once the story is done, sort of a head editor sends the clock and the studio that we’ve recorded in Chelsea to the editor. The editor puts together that entire section. We come out of a commercial, it goes to the ticking clock. We go to the studio, then the story and then the clock again. Our graphic artist has to take that studio that was shot in Chelsea in front of a green screen and then in his home marry his artwork to that, which is a really time-consuming composite. So, we are working literally through the weekend. Oftentimes, we are fully done with the show and it gets delivered to the network Sunday morning for quality control. But I and my senior team will have been watching those final passes, with the studio and the clocks until well after midnight on Saturday night.
DEADLINE: How different is that timeline from before the pandemic?
OWENS: Pre-COVID, we could be working on pieces until mid-day Sunday in our offices and with a far more technologically efficient system in place, with our control room and the movement of media, from the edit room to the control room. It’s just a whole lot easier, the sharing of information. When we screen our pieces now, they’ll send a script and a first cut of a story on a link. Myself and the senior team will look at it. We then have a Zoom call 30 minutes after and we go through all of the changes, all the questions. That happens a few times a week. We might have four or five screenings, where you make sure you’ve sanded down all the rough spots and obviously make sure we’re factual and all the usual things. That’s a more laborious process also. It just takes more time to get all that corralled.
DEADLINE: What has all of this done to your pipeline of stories?
OWENS: There are some stories that are feature stories that will be just fine in the fall. We basically made room for ourselves through the end of May. Then, when it became clear that the pandemic was such a massive story, I went to [CBS Entertainment Group CEO] George Cheeks and, with [CBS News chief] Susan Zirinsky’s blessing, said, ‘We should really stay on through June.’ We were doing really well, just in terms of viewership, and it’s important to people. It’s a public service. And everybody at CBS was great. They got onboard very quickly. I feel fortunate that we’re on TV. It would drive me crazy right now if we were in reruns. But that was never in the cards. At some point we do need to reload and think about next season. It’s a huge political season. We’ll see what’s happening if there’s a second wave of COVID. What’s happening around justice reform and the racial tensions in the country. Those are also stories that we need to shoot and set up. We’re usually shooting through the summer, in preparation for the fall.
DEADLINE: During all of this, you also launched 60 in 6 on Quibi after a delay from the original April 6 date. How has that experience been going, on top of everything else?
OWENS: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ryan Kadro and Shawna Thomas have all been great. A number of people who were ill with COVID were 60 in 6 staffers. So, first and foremost, it was about everybody getting well. They gave us an opportunity to get everyone well and restart. When we started talking about June 14 being the new launch date, then Minneapolis happened. Wesley Lowery, who’s one of the most accomplished journalists around this topic [of racial injustice], went straight to Minneapolis. Over the nine days before launch, we were able to do basically two stories and then this little extra behind-the-scenes thing. I was really proud of it because it was 60 Minutes quality, which is the point. We were on the news. I want to make sure 60 in 6 has all the sensibilities of the Sunday show. Clearly, it’s for a different demographic. It’s for 25-to-35-year-olds. It’s a more diverse audience. It’s an audience that’s important for us to be in front of. I feel like we really executed it. I’m happy that we were able to launch on a week that was so fraught and full of news and still hit the mark.
DEADLINE: You faced a delicate task when you came into your job, rebuilding the trust of your staff, which had been through a lot with not only Jeff Fager but also Charlie Rose. The Les Moonves chapter for CBS created a lot of volatility in 2018 and 2019. How did you look to calm the waters when you officially took over?
OWENS: After Jeff Fager was let go, I just wanted to make sure that the show got on and the audience knew it was 60 Minutes, that we were still producing the same show. That’s what I told everybody. I said, ‘Our responsibility is to the show.’ It’s an important legacy, an important part of everybody’s life who’s interested in the news and what’s happening. We just need to take this one week at a time. And that’s what I’ve done. We’ve been very aggressive in covering the news. When I first took over two years ago, without the title, it was the Kavanagh hearings. It’s been one story after the next. A lot of news and we’ve been really aggressive in covering it. And I think the staff has appreciated that. People are talking about it and appreciating their work. That’s important for them to know their work is valued and I believe it is. So, I think as much as anything, everybody is invested in the broadcast. Everybody is happy with where we are right now in terms of our coverage. And we take it one week at a time.
DEADLINE: One cultural hallmark of 60 Minutes is its team of correspondents, which for a long time were society figures, covered by gossip columnists and so forth. Does it feel like the original group, including Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley and Morley Safer, still casts a shadow in some ways, or is it unfair to compare eras?
OWENS: Cable wasn’t even around when 60 Minutes became a powerhouse. It really was ‘Travels with…’ You know, ‘What’s Mike doing this week?’ And, ‘What’s Diane Sawyer doing this week?’ Ed and Dan Rather and Lesley Stahl. I think what we found out over the years, after losing some of those on the Mount Rushmore of television journalists, is that if you just do the same stories that they were interested in, that we’re all interested in, these important stories told in kind of a sophisticated way, the audience appreciates that. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be about the star correspondent. I would argue that a lot of those star correspondents, there are 100 different cable shows now built around that one person. OK, that’s great. But 60 Minutes is a team and it always was. There’s a number of people on that team contributing. We are at a point where we’re bringing in new talent. I think someone like Jon Wertheim is one of the most gifted writers working in television right now. Sharyn Alfonsi came up through CBS News the way Scott Pelley and Bill Whitaker did. She’s covered every major story over the course of a couple of decades, politics and war and everything in between. She thinks like a producer, she can write and she’s dogged and wants to get to the bottom of things. It takes a particular type of reporter to do well at 60 Minutes, but I’m really comfortable with the team we have now.
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