Hewitt and Arledge Changed How TV Tells a Story

Posted on March 18, 2022 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Resources
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In the 1960’s, two shrewd network television producers, Don Hewitt of CBS News and Roone Arledge of ABC Sports, came to the same conclusion.  It was time to shift programming into a higher gear, one that added context.

Hewitt realized that a dry presentation of the news was not what the public wanted; Arledge came to the same determination about his sports broadcasts.

Both understood they were missing the key ingredient, that is, telling the human side of events.  Hewitt and Arledge, independently grasped their true role: storytelling.  And storytelling with a flair.

Hewitt used this notion to develop 60 Minutes.   “The formula is simple and it’s reduced to four words every kid in the world knows:  tell me a story,” Hewitt observed. “It’s that simple.”

The program was patterned after the then-popular Life magazine — “a family friend in the home of millions of Americans each week, serious and lighthearted in the same issue,” Hewitt said. “The ads didn’t interrupt the stories in Life:  you’d have a story for a few pages, then some ads, then another story.  We could do the same thing on television, each reporter telling a complete story without interruption, then the commercial break.”

Hewitt disagreed with the conventional wisdom that television writers put words to pictures.  It was the other way around:  60 Minutes was going to put pictures to words.  “If we don’t do it that way, all we are doing is writing captions,” Hewitt reasoned.

The idea worked magnificently and is still working.  Fifty-three years on the air, drawing almost eight million viewers a week, 60 Minutes remains America’s most watched news program.

Fittingly, Hewitt’s autobiography is titled Tell Me A Story.

Arledge was reimagining sports coverage in the same mold.  “The place to begin,” he declared, “was seeing the game as a story we were uniquely equipped to tell.”

Arledge believed “Sports were life condensed, all its drama, struggle, heartbreak and triumph embodied in contests…sports contained the unexpected…so did life — chaos intruding on the orderly patterns of civilization. Sports could bring tears or laughter, in wonderment over its sometimes absurdity.  Television could capture it all, and… there was a chance to do it creatively.”

Nowhere, Arledge argued, was the vapidity of televised sports on better display than in football coverage.  He said the cameras “stood like lighthouses” in fixed locations, riveted only on the field of play.  Arledge decided to use six cameras for the basic coverage of the game and then add a fleet of roving cameras– all would be in search of other interesting facets not normally televised.  As Arledge put it, “the excitement, wonder, jubilation, and despair that make this America’s number one sports spectacle, and a human drama to match bullfights and heavy-weight championships in intensity.”

This visionary approach, which Arledge first employed in sports and later, in the news division, led him to a stunning thirty-seven Emmy Awards.  He created such programs as Wide World of Sports, Monday Night Football, World News Tonight and This Week with David Brinkley.   All were groundbreaking and successful:  Monday Night is about to enter its fifty-second season and the Brinkley program essentially re-invented Sunday morning news presentations.

Hewitt and Arledge used television to tap into one of the most fundamental connections in human history, a universal thread that pre-dates written communication.  The first stories were visual, such as cave drawings, well before they became oral traditions (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were initially handed down verbally).  Today, stories remain vital to us in a cyber world in ways hardly imaginable just one generation ago.

According to Professor Melanie Green, PhD, stories are narrative accounts that raise unanswered questions or unresolved conflicts.  They have a narrative arc which contain an identifiable beginning, middle, and end.

As to their appeal, Dr. Green quotes a proverb:  Tell me a fact and I’ll learn.  Tell me the truth and I’ll believe.  But tell me a story and it will remain in my heart forever.

Researcher Liz Neeley summed it up this way: “We all know this delicious feeling of being swept into a story world.  You forget about your surroundings and you are entirely immersed.”

The positive emotion produced by storytelling has a sound scientific basis.  Princeton Professor Uri Hasson, PhD and his team have tracked brain activity in storytellers and listeners.  They discovered the listeners with the greatest comprehension produced brain wave patterns very similar to those found in the storyteller.

Professor Hasson said, “Our brains become coupled in time, and it’s like we are dancing together, and we become more and more similar to each other in our brain responses.”

More than a half century ago, Hewitt and Arledge did not have advanced research data on hand.  The two producers, using purely gut instinct, anticipated what science and hundreds of millions of television viewers later confirmed—there is no substitute for a good story.

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