Directing

Director Spotlight: Don Hewitt

Originally posted on: August 28, 2013
Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Don Hewitt  began his career during the dawn of television, starting in 1948 and working at CBS for an incredible sixty-one years. Shortly after World War II while the new medium of television was just in its infancy, Don and his contemporaries literally invented how this new communications technology could be used.  While at the CBS’s News Division, Don directed the very first live televised Presidential debate. He also did the very first live broadcast remote of a political convention. He directed the earliest news programs with legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow and produced the nightly CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite for eighteen years.

Life at CBS was not perfect however.

As some of his peers, friends and ‘friend-emies’ where promoted to new positions in the company, office politics saw the rise and fall of many careers. When one of Don’s detractors was promoted to the position of Head of CBS News, Don was fired from his post at nightly Evening News telecast.

That failure however brought Don to his greatest success, earning him ninety-five Emmy Awards (a record unsurpassed by any primetime show, on any network, and the show he went on to create currently holds the record for the longest continuously running program of all genres on American prime time)!

After being fired from the CBS Evening News Don was relegated to the ‘documentary division’ at CBS, which Don hated.  He was bored silly and wanted out.  He used his time there to study the ratings of all documentary shows airing on each network and saw that each show had similar ratings regardless of the network or the topic. Whether a documentary was produced and aired on ABC, NBC, PBS or CBS, they all looked, sounded pretty much the same.

Don thought, there had to be a better way.  Hewitt wondered:

(1) if we split up an hour of programming into just three story segments, about 13 minutes each, we would have the time to fully develop a story; as opposed to the 30-90 seconds per story common on most news broadcasts previously.

(2) if the news, which is by nature is ‘reality’ could rather be written, lit, shot and recorded as attractively as Hollywood fiction, and

(3) if the stories were “personal journalism,” then audiences would watch.

Don envisioned, pitched and went on to produce “60 Minutes,” a ‘news magazine show’ which under Hewitt’s leadership earned a place in Neilson’s Top-10 rating for ALL television programming … for twenty consecutive years.

Hewitt would say, “I don’t compete against the other shows on television or the other news agencies. I compete against the distractions in the household. I compete against the remote control.”

Don would explain, “Television is a medium which you make no commitment to.”  Adding, “If you buy a book, you pay money. If you go to the movies it’s a big deal, you have to hire a babysitter, you have to get in your car, drive to the theater, find a parking space, you have to pay the box office… it’s a big deal.”

“Can you name five movies in your whole life you have walked out on? No, nobody can!”  “But you can name five television shows you walk out on every night.”

The key to Hewitt’s observation is that when communicating through a visual medium that requires no commitment or investment from the viewer; the content, as well as the artistic and technical execution of the content must be compelling and must be done with excellence if we hope to maintain the viewers’ attention despite all the distractions in the home.

Programming, which works on a live stage will not necessarily work on television. A Pastor’s message, which may pack a church service on Sunday morning will not necessarily insure the same result on video.   The needs of a viewer are inextricably intertwined with the medium.    The propensity of our audience to use the remote control (or the mouse) to switch away from our programming requires the highest production standards, “excellence” to keep the viewer’s attention on our content.

Don would dauntlessly insure 60 Minutes was written, lit, shot and recorded as attractively as a Hollywood produced drama. Don would scrutinize each word of a story’s script. He would often sit with his back to the video monitor to focus his attention on the audible inflections used in every word and sentence of a host or reporter’s voice-over.  When asked if pictures or sound were of the highest importance, Hewitt always responded, “the audio!” citing observations CBS executives made regarding an audience’s viewing habits when a broadcast lost either video or sound to the home.

But the importance of powerful images was not lost on Hewitt either.  And what is the most important image?  The human face.  The face communicates everything.  Believe-ableness.  Integrity.  Credibility, or the lack thereof.   It’s all available in a tight shot.

Hewitt often said, “What we do on 60 Minutes is what everybody should be doing and it’s four words that every child in the world knows…”

“Tell me a story…  If you learn how to tell people a story, you’ll be a success.”

Surprisingly Hewitt would add, “Even the people who wrote the Bible knew, ‘Tell them a story.’ The issue was evil in the world but the story was Noah. Now the writers of the Bible knew that and I just latched on to it.”  His comment makes one wonder if we in the church world are so focused on issues that we lost sight of the stories which illustrates the very issues we are attempting to address?

Hewitt and his team were also innovators. In the early days at CBS the standard practice (well before character-generator computers) was to have an artist draw up title cards which were then shot with a camera and keyed over live video.  This worked reasonably well when one’s guest list is known well in advance.  However when out televising a political convention, Hewitt quickly realized grabbing notable interviewees and political pundits out of a crowd, that the artist could not keep up with the pace drawing up new title cards.  Hewitt thought, “there has to be a way to expedite creation of lower-third titles – with removable, reusable type.”  While sitting at a diner counter one early morning, staring at the menu board hung high on a wall the answer came to him.  The menu board had a white plush background with removable black text letters which could be easily and rapidly be moved around to create whatever words were needed on the fly.  When the waitress asked Hewitt what he wanted to order for breakfast Don struck a deal to buy the diners menu board, right off the wall (including all spare letters the diner had), got his breakfast “to go” and that day at the convention the first movable-type CG was invented and used on live television.

Hewitt was also fiercely competitive.  Upon pulling into a restaurant Don and the CBS team saw one of their competitors “OB” (Outside Broadcast) production trucks sitting in the parking lot unattended.  When Hewitt realized that the competing network’s technicians had left the keys in the truck Don and the CBS crew “borrowed” the competitor’s TV truck and parked it nearby in a cornfield.  When Don got back to New York there was a message waiting for him to go speak with the CBS executives.  It seems the other network was threatening grand theft auto charges.   While reprimanding Hewitt the executives had to suppress their own chuckles.

Aside from “borrowing” the church-down-the-block’s satellite dish or cable modem and leaving it in a cornfield, what (else) can we learn from Hewitt?  If a news program can earn ninety-five Emmy Awards; be top-10 rated in primetime for twenty years; if a character generator can be invented out of a diner’s menu board; if programming can be scripted, lit and shot with the quality of a Hollywood film; if “story” is indeed the most effective vehicle to address issues; if Hewitt could put the highest priority on audio and capturing people’s faces;  if news can be delivered in a compelling, engaging fashion; how can we best present the issues and stories available in Scriptures and at our churches?

Tom D'Angelo
Tom D'Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for the last thirty-eight years. He has been nominated for a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award (Best Director category) and has been part of various teams that have been nominated and won national Emmy's. As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.