The 50th season of “60 Minutes” launches Sunday (CBS/2, 7:30 p.m.) with a little birthday surprise: Oprah Winfrey, who joins the iconic magazine as “special contributor.” I spoke recently with the show’s longtime showrunner, Jeff Fager, about this new face and a few other topics, notably the show’s future and its glorious — sometimes contentious — past. Fager, who joined the show in 1989 as the producer for correspondent Steve Kroft, has written a book, “Fifty Years of 60 Minutes: The Inside Story of Television’s Most Influential News Broadcast,” which will be published Oct. 24.
Oprah’s certainly a major departure for “60.” What will she bring to the show?
Our sensibilities are so similar and she wants to cover stories with impact. That’s why this fits so well. Her first story is about the divide in America — a panel discussion — and she’s just so good at bringing things out of people, which is what our correspondents do.
She is beloved by millions, but she’s also a politicized personality — an important backer of both President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Any concern that viewers will see her that way?
She and we will be judged based on the work she does here. I’m not concerned about that one bit. You can’t see that she’s coming from any particular place and we’re going to be proud of the work she does here. In terms of background and history, she reminds me a little bit of Mike Wallace, who had a full career before starting at “60,” but the one thing he did that stands out as with her was the interview and that ability to absorb.
How many pieces a year will she do?
At first I thought four or five, but she’s motivated and it could be more. She sees that at this particular moment, it’s a nice place to be and there are not many news programs who can still attract the mass audience we do.
What will “60” evolve to in the next 10 or so years — or even beyond?
We’ve always stuck to our values and standards — that hasn’t changed and won’t.
Nevertheless, the world is rapidly changing around you — almost more in the past couple of years than in the past 50. Doesn’t that present a profound challenge?
In terms of delivery of the program, that is going to change dramatically in the next 10 years. We work [play] very well on mobile devices, for example. We’re fortunate in that way.
But the “60” audience is older and accustomed to the way things have always been. You will adapt, but will they?
Our audience is actually a lot younger than the cable news audience — our viewers’ average age is around 59. But we also know that in the future, people aren’t going to be watching broadcast television the way they do now. Nevertheless, that translates well for us because we translate so well in the digital world.
That may well be, but I’d argue that part of the magic of “60” is that Sunday 7 p.m. appointment habit. Will that be irrevocably lost in the all-digital future?
We are still an appointment for 90 percent of the people who watch, [but] crystal-balling 10 years from now, it’s hard to imagine where we will be delivered. If in a digital format, that’s not a bad way to watch and in fact a good way.
Let’s talk quickly about the extraordinary history of this show. The high points are many, but as you write in the book, the lowest was around the 25th anniversary so-called “Tobaccogate,” when CBS lawyers forced the show to spike a story about a tobacco industry whistleblower. How bad was that moment?
It was our worst moment, and it’s very difficult looking back and thinking what could we have done differently. It was also probably the best story that ever came into “60 Minutes” and the company said we couldn’t air it. .. . If Don [Hewitt, legendary “60” founder, who died in 2009] had resigned, it might have been the end of the program.
The “60” spinoff — “60 Minutes II,” which launched in ’99 and wrapped in 2005 — was another interesting part of the history, and yielded ’gate: Memogate a discredited story about President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, based on a memo that appeared to have been forged. Was “60 II” a mistake in hindsight?
Absolutely not a mistake. It was an amazing place where great stories were being broadcast for five, six years.
Nevertheless, Memogate did come out of the show, and effectively ended Dan Rather’s long career at CBS News. Have you both patched up your differences?
I was never at war with Dan. I love him and he was one of the greatest correspondents that ever worked at CBS and always felt that way. And if you look at the history of “60,” it took off the moment he joined [in 1975].
The death of Bob Simon [in 2015] was a huge shock, but “60” had endured other blows over the years and of course continued, even thrived. Not many other programs could manage that. How did this one?
The deaths of Bob and Ed Bradley [in 2006] were both huge shocks and nothing had prepared us for them. . . It’s always been an ensemble of reporters. Mike was first among equals and I still think of him as the ultimate “60 Minutes” correspondent. But even he didn’t want to be thought of as a star figure. He recognized that it’s the ensemble that makes us so good.
There does appear to be one irreplaceable figure: Andy Rooney [who died in 2011]. I believe you had talked to Jon Stewart about taking his place?
Yes [the discussions went on for years]. I don’t think he ever wanted to do it, but he was tempted. He had enough on his plate. I feel it’s almost impossible to replace Andy. He’s just one of those figures who fit into that world so perfectly. I never felt pressure to fill the role and never felt that it had to be filled. I miss him and love him, but I’m not going to put something on that doesn’t work for us.