NEW YORK >> The iconic stopwatch won’t be reset, but for six episodes this fall, “60 Minutes” will become 90 minutes.
The CBS newsmagazine is stretching on some Sundays when CBS airs an NFL doubleheader, starting Oct. 8. Often, the show doesn’t air until 7:30 p.m. on the East Coast those nights (it usually starts at 7 p.m.).
The request to Bill Owens, the show’s executive producer, came from top CBS executive George Cheeks, and predated the strikes that have paralyzed Hollywood and left networks looking for more content. Owens said he needed to weigh whether the three extra hours across the six episodes would dilute the broadcast.
“My job is to protect the place,” he said. “I don’t ever want to harm a hair on the head of ‘60 Minutes.’”
There will generally be two extra pieces on the 90-minute nights, and correspondents are already lobbying for more time to tell their stories. Extra producers have been brought in. Owens said the additional stories would likely lean toward feature or adventure fare, like one Bill Whitaker is preparing about a motorcycle race on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea.
More than a half century in, “60 Minutes” remains the most popular show in television news. It averaged close to nine million viewers each week last season, ranking first among non-sports, prime-time programs in live viewing, seventh when a time-delayed audience of up to a week is added, the Nielsen company said.
The show’s stories get an additional 15 million views each week on various digital platforms, CBS said. That’s a different measurement than “viewers,” however, and doesn’t necessarily correspond to 15 million extra people.
“60 Minutes” has almost completely turned over its correspondent corps since its glory years, with Lesley Stahl remaining as the elder stateswoman. She began in 1991.
The latest newbie is former ABC correspondent Cecilia Vega, who joined earlier this year. A bit starstruck, she admits that “I still take videos and send them to my mom when I’m walking around the hallways in my office.”
She spoke via phone from Poland, where she is working on what she expects will be one of the most important stories in her career, about Ukrainian children who were kidnapped and sent to Russia during the war. She was following one woman who had been working for months to retrieve a relative.
“We are telling what is going on in the war through the eyes of women and children,” she said, “and I can’t think of anything that is more gut-wrenching.”
Owens said that “60 Minutes” has eight stories about the war in Ukraine in the works for its 56th season, which starts Sunday. Besides Vega, Whitaker and Scott Pelley — who won an Edward R. Murrow award for four stories he has done from the war — are both working on the topic.
The show is keeping a close eye on how American money is being spent in Ukraine, for example, and examining how the country’s arts and culture has been affected by the Russian invasion.
“We’re doing shows about the entirety of the country so people have a sense of what it’s like when you’re invaded,” Owens said.
The attention is intentional. Owens, entering his fifth year as the newsmagazine’s top executive, said he believed the Russian invasion of a neighbor in Europe is not getting enough coverage in the U.S. media, either because it’s too expensive to devote resources or executives are worried that viewers are getting fatigued about the topic.
The show is not trying to send a political message at a time some are questioning how much American resources should be devoted to the effort, he said.
“The thing that’s inspired me the most is the people of Ukraine and their resilience,” Whitaker said. “They refuse to be bowed. They refuse to be knocked down. … It’s almost a defiant normalcy.”
Besides Whitaker, Stahl, Vega and Pelley, the current “60 Minutes” correspondent team includes Sharyn Alfonsi, Anderson Cooper and Jon Wertheim.
Owens, who began with “60 Minutes” in 2003 as a producer with Pelley, said he often keeps some of the show’s legends in mind when running the broadcast — such as Morley Safer, who died in 2016 eight days after announcing his retirement following 46 years as a correspondent.
“I think, often, about what Morley would think about a story because Morley would give it to you right between the eyes and tell you the truth,” he said. “I think Morley would be proud of this show.”