The 60 Minutes crew poses smiling against a red backdrop.

The 60 Minutes crew (from left): Sharyn Alfonsi, Scott Pelley, Bill Whitaker, Lesley Stahl, Bill Owens, Jon Wertheim, and Anderson Cooper

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese/CBS

What’s at the heart of the most successful broadcast in TV history? In honor of 60 Minutes’ 55th anniversary, here’s a rare glimpse into the show’s epic rise and remarkable success.

By Lisa Kennedy

“Every week I think, What would Morley and Mike and Ed think? I swear to God, I do.” 60 Minutes executive producer Bill Owens is on a video call when he confesses his faith in three of the legends of what has become the longest-running, highest-rated news program in television history: correspondents Morley Safer, Mike Wallace, and Ed Bradley. “It matters to us a lot that we’re carrying on where they left off—and the bar was set so high.”

60 Minutes airs Sundays at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS and streams on Paramount+.

Watch all your favorite shows on CBS and streaming on Paramount+!

Congresswoman Liz Cheney points to some pictures on her wall as 60 Minutes' Lesley Stahl smiles.

Lesley Stahl interviews Congresswoman Liz Cheney.

Photo credit: 60 Minutes

With the mantra and mandate “Tell me a story,” 60 Minutes creator and executive producer Don Hewitt and his crew of now iconic correspondents set the bar high indeed with the newsmagazine upstart in a news division known for exacting standards. CBS News was Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. It was Walter Cronkite. It is 60 Minutes, which celebrates its 55th season this fall. Owens took over as executive producer in 2019, only the third person to helm the show after Hewitt and Jeff Fager. Under his leadership, correspondents Lesley Stahl, Scott Pelley, Bill Whitaker, Anderson Cooper, Sharyn Alfonsi, and Jon Wertheim—in addition to CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell, who is also a contributor to 60 Minutes—have repeatedly cleared that bar and then raised it.

Journalists take cover behind a car as they come under fire in Iraq.

Bill Owens, Scott Pelley, and crew come under fire during the Iraq invasion in 2003.

Photo credit: 60 Minutes

In May, Paramount front-and-centered its newsmagazine at the crucial industry confab for advertisers, the Upfronts. For good reason: In its 54th season, 60 Minutes finished No. 1 in primetime news programs. It had the most No.1 ratings wins—seven—since the 1992–93 season. Segments from last season often made news: Pelley’s interviews with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen; Whitaker’s alarming report on Russia’s cyber-security threats; Alfonsi’s trip to Afghanistan to interview the Taliban minister of health; Stahl’s sit-down with embattled congresswoman Liz Cheney. Even when they weren’t garnering headlines of their own, segments engaged, illuminated, and underlined human connections—the stuff expected of a legacy.

60 Minutes reporter Bill Whitaker rides a horse in the Green River Drift.

Recent segments include Bill Whitaker’s report from the Green River Drift.

Photo credit: Eric Kerchner/60 Minutes

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this past year vies with the 1992–93 season in ratings. That time, too, was roiling. The Persian Gulf War had ended. The AIDS pandemic had not. There was a presidential election. “There is an epic need for deeper, further insight into what’s going on,” says Owens. “I first noticed that going back to the financial crash around the housing market. Our numbers were robust then and have been through the pandemic, issues around social justice and police reform, and obviously the war in Ukraine.”

Norah O\u2019Donnell interviews former defense secretary Mark Esper on a balcony overlooking the White House and the Washington Monument.

CBS Evening News anchor and 60 Minutes contributor Norah O’Donnell’s interview with former defense secretary Mark Esper

Photo credit: Eric Kerchner/60 Minutes

“Every week people are bombarded by a lot of information, a lot of daily news, which tends to cover the same thing that day,” he adds. “We’re able to take a step back and concentrate on one thing, one part of the story, and expand it.” This distillation doesn’t come easily. As a story wends its way to airing, it goes through several screenings in which the correspondents and their team meet in the screening room with Owens and his team to get at the best possible version of the story. Those screenings might well be the show’s very special sauce.”

“There is a trust factor that’s built up over 54 seasons,” says Owens. “There’s also an expectation. People expect that on Sunday they’re going to get something different than what they’ve been hearing all week. And if around these big stories, people come away feeling a bit more educated, I think we’ve done our jobs.”

Getting Here

Lesley Stahl: The beginning of my life at CBS News wasn’t really as an interviewer, because I did Watergate as a number two. I was learning by observing. Watergate lasted so long that it did allow me to learn everything: how to develop a source, how to investigate, how to stay with it and not give up. Most young reporters don’t get that chance. The idea that you could follow one thread for so long was the best education.

Bill Whitaker: CBS Evening News was my home for decades. When you come [to 60 Minutes], you have the resources and the time and the support to go out and tell the absolute best story possible. You always try to do that with the Evening News, but it’s rushed. We’ve got 13 and a half minutes to tell a story on 60 Minutes, which in television time is an eternity.

Jon Wertheim walks down a Seattle street speaking with WNBA star Sue Bird.

Jon Wertheim’s profile of WNBA star Sue Bird

Photo credit: 60 Minutes

Anderson Cooper: I grew up watching 60 Minutes. When I was first approached to do 60 Minutes II, I couldn’t believe it. The first time I said, “I’m Anderson Cooper”—it was a dream come true. I love working on multiple stories that are completely different: from working on an interview with Tony Bennett for his concert with Lady Gaga, to a hard news story, to interviewing Laurie Anderson about her extraordinary life in the world of art.

Sharyn Alfonsi: I had three jobs I always wanted to do: I wanted to write the great Southern novel, but then my dad said, “Are the big Southern novel companies hiring?” I loved 60 Minutes. Loved it. I thought I either wanted to be a reporter for 60 Minutes or to write the news on Saturday Night Live. SNL is still my backup.

Jon Wertheim: The learning curve is very much still ongoing [Wertheim has a magazine background and is currently the executive editor at Sports Illustrated]. In some ways, it’s like what I’ve always done: try to ask probing questions, add something new and inform and entertain, and keep it in time constraints. But in other ways, it’s completely different. I did a piece on how China is using bio data. There was so much legwork. It was just gnarly in the sense that I really had to learn on the fly. Which is half the fun of this job, too. One week you do something on Eurovision, and the next you do something on ballet, and next you do something on Sue Bird. That’s part of the beauty of the job to me.

Scott Pelley interviews Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky\u200b in a house filled with sandbags.

Scott Pelley’s interview with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky

Photo credit: Eric Kerchner/60 Minutes

Scott Pelley: In 1997, CBS had just made me the chief White House correspondent. The bureau chief in Washington said, “Who do you want for a producer?” I said, “Let me have the person who’s been doing it a long time,” because I needed that expertise. And they said, “Well, that’s Bill Owens.” And Bill and I have been partners ever since. We had a trial by fire because about six months after my arrival at the White House, the Monica Lewinsky story broke. Bill said, “You know, we can never be wrong, because we are working on an investigation involving the president of the United States.” And that tells you a great deal about Bill. He understood what the stakes were immediately, and he understood that a lot rested on our shoulders covering the White House for CBS News writ large. And we really could never be wrong.

The Storytelling

Whitaker: For me the story that had the greatest impact was the series we did on opioids. It was hard hitting and shone the spotlight on an issue of real importance in the United States and was also talking about the complicity of the drug industry, our legislators, our congresspeople. That’s why I do this: to have an impact, to make things clear to people so they can stand up and say, “I don’t want my country doing that.”

Owens: With Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, and Tony’s family, we wanted to talk with them about why they wanted to do this story. And part of the reason was for awareness for other families who are dealing with dementia, early-onset Alzheimer’s, and Alzheimer’s. So it took us a minute to figure out that we needed to speak to his doctor. There needed to be a kind of empirical medical component to the story. I think some people think, They did Lady Gaga. That must be fun. That piece took a lot of care. The same amount of muscle goes into each story.

Cooper: I was interested in Alzheimer’s and figuring out ways to tell some aspect of that story. When I heard that Tony’s family was willing to allow us into this sensitive time, to be with them and spend time with them, it was an extraordinary act of courage on their part.
Wearing a blue head covering Sharyn Alfonsi\u2019s meets with the Taliban minister of health inside a hospital in Afghanistan.

Sharyn Alfonsi’s meeting with the Taliban minister of health

Photo credit: Massimo Mariani/60 Minutes

Wertheim: Bill at one point called me into his office and said, “Would you be open to doing nonsports stories?” So I did a piece on Viola Davis. I’d never met her. She’d never met me. We just kind of hit it off. Those are nice moments when you just have a conversation and a connection with people.

Owens: Jon Wertheim is one of the finest writers in television journalism. He’s an editor at Sports Illustrated. So he also thinks like an editor. But his writing is so original and colorful that it brings a smile to your face. He reminds me of Morley Safer and Bob Simon. He did a story about this retired couple in Indiana who figured out how to win the state lottery because the guy was a retired accountant; they won millions of dollars. But the line that I’ll never forget was when [Jon] talked about the town, a small town in Indiana where they live. He said, “It’s a town that’s so small that it gets lost in the folds of a map.” Who thinks like that?
Anderson Cooper sits on a couch with Tony Bennett and his family conversing and laughing.

Anderson Cooper’s interview with Tony Bennett and his family

Photo credit: 60 Minutes

Wertheim: At some level, writing is writing. And at the same time, this has been a completely different kind of writing. I had to learn how to be more efficient. And there are some words that don’t work for TV. Puns don’t always work when you can’t see the words on the page. I could say it’s been gratifying, but it’s just been really fun to write in a different way.

Pelley: I find over my career that television generally exaggerates, but there have been times when I didn’t feel the camera could capture the enormity of what I was looking at. Bucha [in Ukraine] was one of those moments. That’s where the writing comes in, where you look at those pictures, use those pictures to inform the writing, and add the facts that allow the audience to have a broader perspective on what’s going on.

Owens: There’s nobody I prefer to have for a difficult interview than Lesley Stahl. She’s fearless. Fearless.
60 Minutes\u2019 Lesley Stahl poses for a portrait wearing a cream colored blazer.

LESLEY STAHL: “You learn that you can ask a leader, a head of state, a tough question. You’re paid to do that. That’s the job. Holding people in power accountable is what you’re there for.”

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese/CBS Entertainment

Stahl: I can’t think of the last time I was intimidated. But I’m sure I was intimidated after what I’m going to tell you. In my mind, the one big moment I lost control of an interview, it was because the person lorded over me—and we were online—and he managed to do it long distance. It was General Norman Schwarzkopf. I was doing Face the Nation. It was live, and it was in relation to the Iraq War, and he shut me down. He totally shut me down. I don’t know if I said to myself, You’re never going to be in that situation again or Learn something from it, but that was a moment I’ll never forget. I covered the White House, and you learn that you can ask a leader, a head of state, a tough question. You’re paid to do that. That’s the job. Holding people in power accountable is what you’re there for.

60 Minutes\u2019 Scott Pelley poses for a portrait wearing a charcoal grey suit.

SCOTT PELLEY: “I went to Afghanistan 10 times. I went to Iraq 26 times, South Sudan, and now Ukraine. You cannot let those things pile up.”

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese/CBS Entertainment

Alfonsi: What 60 Minutes does best is, instead of doing the whole story, instead of doing everything that happened, we try to focus in on one small thing, driving a train toward a pinhole. [For the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School piece], we really wanted to hear what these kids had to say and let them speak and hope that people connected with them.

Stahl: The most important thing for an interviewer to do is to listen. Because what’s really important is the follow-up question. Their third answer. The most important thing from the questioner’s side is to pick up on what they’re saying and be able to say, “Wait a minute, what about this?” If the follow-up question is the most important part of the interview—which it is—then you have to be able to follow the subject the person is talking about. You have to study it. That’s it: listening and studying. [Pauses.] Also, people lie.

The Special Sauce: The Screenings

Wertheim: Sharyn and I lived in the same building years ago, and I saw her in the lobby. She was sort of pacing around, and I said, “You doing OK?” And she said, “I’ve got a screening coming up.” What is that all about? I thought. And then a few years later, I experienced it firsthand. I had a couple of screenings and it wasn’t a big deal. And then I had a screening that went less well. And I thought, Oh, now I get it.

Alfonsi: I used to throw up before every screening. I was so nervous and wanted to do well. And the only reason I stopped throwing up is because we now do the screenings remotely. It’s probably been the best thing for my health. I’m still nervous. You’re in there fighting for your vision of the story, fighting for your characters, defending your choices. But you’re also listening to really smart people who have read every single interview who say, “Hey, did you think about this?” Or “I thought this was interesting …” The bar is high.
60 Minutes\u2019 Bill Whitaker poses for a portrait wearinga navy blue suit.

BILL WHITAKER: “That’s why I do this: to have an impact, to make things clear to people so they can stand up and say, ‘I don’t want my country doing that.’”

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese/CBS Entertainment

Stahl: It’s like going into an audition: You’re just going to be criticized. You’re walking into a situation where they’re not there to say, “Nice job.” They’re there to say, “Here’s what’s wrong and here’s our idea on how to fix it.” Half the time, you disagree. That’s the difficult part. There have been so many times when the criticism feels right and the prescription for fixing the piece is right, and you say to yourself, “That’s going to make the story so much better.” Then there are the times when you say, “Nope.” I don’t have the final word. But you get to argue. Bill [Owens] particularly is sane and smart. When I say he’s sane, I mean if you argue your position, he’ll listen. With Bill there is a back and forth and a give and take.

War, Heartache, and Hope

Owens: Scott has a sense of gravitas. When he interviewed [President] Zelensky, the Bucha massacres had just happened. I was trying to tell him that I didn’t think we had time for him to go to Bucha. And he said to me, “Yeah, yeah, I hear you. Well, we’ll see about that.”

Pelley: Well, I did have to go because I’m a reporter and I had to see it for myself. And I’m so glad I did because it was so much more devastating than I had imagined. We found a mass grave behind St. Andrews Anglican Church that the Russians had not bothered to cover up because they had retreated in such a hurry. And I had the opportunity to speak to people in Bucha about what their experience had been. There is no substitute for having your boots on the ground.
60 Minutes' Jon Wertheim poses fora portrait weirg a grey power suit.

JON WERTHEIM: “One week you do something on Eurovision, and the next you do something on ballet, and next you do something on Sue Bird. That’s part of the beauty of the job to me.”

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese/CBS Entertainment

Alfonsi: The Taliban story would never have happened without my producer, Ashley [Velie]. You can imagine getting into Afghanistan after the fall and the logistics that were involved. Every part of it was difficult. … [After the interview] they say, “OK, you’re going to eat with us,” and you don’t say no. We go downstairs and they prepared this big meal. Keep in mind, we’re there because people are starving. And the last time we were there, they were trying to shoot and kill us. So it was the strangest meal ever. And then we drove back to the hotel that night, and it’s late and it’s dark. And we got pulled over at a checkpoint by the Taliban. They took our vests. They took our helmets. They were trying to take our phones. Ashley was tucking phones into our boots in case they separated us. It was crazy. When we got back to the hotel, we were like, “What just happened? Did we just have dinner with the Taliban? Did they just stop us? Are we still here?”

Pelley: I was at the World Trade Center when the buildings came down and then spent two weeks with Bill Owens at Ground Zero. Bill was my constant partner and companion in those days. It was after that event that I discovered that reporters get PTSD, reporters get depressed. And I had a terrific counselor who helped me appreciate what I was going through and gave me tools to help me cope with not only 9/11 but everything else that came after. I went to Afghanistan 10 times. I went to Iraq 26 times, South Sudan, and now Ukraine. You cannot let those things pile up.

60 Minutes\u2019 Sharyn Alfonsi poses for a portrait weiring a black silk blouse.

SHARYN ALFONSI: “What 60 Minutes does best is, instead of doing the whole story, instead of doing everything that happened, we try to focus in on one small thing, driving a train toward a pinhole.”

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese/CBS Entertainment

Whitaker: I’ve seen all the horrible things in the world: massacres and natural disasters. You name it, I’ve seen it. But I’ve also seen the other side, where, after disaster, there’s an outpouring of people wanting to help, people stepping up to embrace the folks who have gone through hell. In a whole area, they all had nothing. And they put their nothing together to help each other. That’s as big a part of the story as the devastation.

Alfonsi: There’s that famous Mister Rogers quote— “Look for the helpers”—right? When things are scary, I say to my kids, “Look for the helpers.” Whether it’s the war in Ukraine or the pandemic or whatever the situation, I try to look for that because you’re looking for hope, you’re looking for connection.

60 Minutes' Anderson Cooper poses for a portrait wearing a charcoal grey suit with a black necktie.

ANDERSON COOPER: “I grew up watching 60 Minutes. The first time I said, ‘I’m Anderson Cooper,’ it was a dream come true.”

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese/CBS Entertainment

Pelley: Bill [Owens] and I went into Iraq with the invasion force in 2003 unembedded. We were in a firefight with Marines fighting some Iraqi forces, and a shell comes from the Iraqi side and explodes right over our heads. Shelling is a classic disbursement method for chemical weapons. At that time we believed that they had chemical weapons. So the Marines yell, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” And they put on their gas masks. I reach to grab mine. I’d left it in the truck. The truck is 100 yards away. I actually thought, So this is the last mistake I’m going to make. I look around completely powerless. And out of the corner of my eye, I see Bill running toward me with my mask in his hand. That tells you everything you need to know about Bill. He has intellectual courage in the screening room to ask every hard question and hold all of us to the fire. In addition, he has the physical courage. He has been there.

The Boss

60 Minutes Executive Producer Bill Owens poses against a red background wearing a gray blazer and sitting on a stool.

BILL OWENS: “I couldn’t believe that I was going to be in the same room with Bob Schieffer and the other reporters who came walking through. I really couldn’t believe it.”

Photo credit: Joe Pugliese / CBS 2022 © CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

Asked if he recalled his first day at CBS, Owens promised a “maybe better—even cuter—story.” Promise kept.

Owens: I was basically hired as an intern for the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1988, and I was assigned to the newsroom trailer. Got there early, and I opened the door and Bob Schieffer was sitting at the news desk with the assignment editor and deputy assignment editor. Bob always had his feet up on a desk and a pencil in his mouth. And I was frozen in the doorway. I thought, I shouldn’t be here. Bob Schieffer is in this office. I’ve watched Bob Schieffer my whole life. And one of the editors looked at me and said, “Are you Owens?” “Yes … sir.” “OK, come over here. We got a coffee order for you, and then you’re going to clean out the wire machine.” I couldn’t believe that I was going to be in the same room with Bob Schieffer and the other reporters who came walking through. I really couldn’t believe it.

What would Morley, Ed, and Mike say?

Owens: The three of them would have a different response. Morley would say, “Way to go, kiddo.” Ed would wink. Mike would say, “Well, let’s see how you do next week. This was pretty good.”

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60 Minutes airs Sundays at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS and streams on Paramount+.

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