CBS News will try to reinvent itself, again

By Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin

In May 2020, a few months after “CBS Evening News” relocated from its longtime Manhattan home to Washington — a move that perplexed some producers and cost millions — the third-ranked newscast finally seemed to be finding a groove.

Susan Zirinsky, a CBS News legend who became its president in 2019 after nearly a half-century at the network, had picked Norah O’Donnell to lead the “Evening News,” and the anchor had landed a big interview with Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.

At 6:30 p.m., viewers on the East Coast tuned in — but O’Donnell was nowhere in sight. A technical glitch had knocked out CBS’s transmission feed. With homebound staff hobbled by the pandemic, the network tried, and failed, to restore its flagship newscast; instead, viewers saw an awkward ad break and content from the CBSN streaming channel. On Instagram, O’Donnell posted a video apologizing.

It was among the tougher moments of Zirinsky’s time at the CBS News helm, a tenure that began with promises of rebirth under the first woman to lead the network’s news division and ended, on Thursday, with an announcement that she was stepping down after just two years for a behind-the-scenes production role.

Zirinsky, 69, is a singular figure at CBS News, the rare woman to climb the ranks of network news — she was the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s character in the 1987 film “Broadcast News” — and her ascension to president in 2019 was literally met with cheers from the staff. She took over a news division reeling from damaging harassment scandals, including the tarnished exits of Jeff Fager, the longtime executive producer of “60 Minutes,” and Leslie Moonves, the former CBS chief executive.

“The morale was at an all-time low, the shows were messy,” Zirinsky said in an interview on Saturday, shortly after she had finished overseeing live coverage of Prince Philip’s funeral.

“What I feel like I’ve achieved in these two years is something that for me, philosophically, journalistically, feels like I righted the ship.”

“I feel I have given my entire soul into rebuilding this organization,” she said.

Zirinsky is also leaving the network’s morning and evening news shows as she had inherited them: in third place, behind ABC and NBC. And she will be succeeded by a pair of outsiders more steeped in business strategy than news reporting: Neeraj Khemlani, a veteran executive at the publisher Hearst, and Wendy McMahon, the former head of ABC’s local stations group.

The change is a strategic pivot by George Cheeks, the executive who took responsibility of CBS’s television properties last year and is now charged with shaking up a news division that is long on history, but short on viewers. CBS News may be the former home of Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite — its Manhattan studios are filled with relics from midcentury halcyon days — but it has struggled for years to compete against ABC and NBC.

Cheeks had lamented at times that Zirinsky — or “Z,” in CBS parlance — could be overly focused on the minutiae of news gathering, rather than broader changes in the news business, according to a person who requested anonymity to speak candidly about private discussions.

“The wants and habits of our consumers evolve by the day,” Cheeks wrote to his staff in a memo last week. He effusively praised Zirinsky as an “indefatigable” driver of “powerful journalism” while suggesting that it would fall to the next generation of CBS leaders to usher in the modern era: “Z has helped position the division for success.”

Zirinsky, in the interview, said that “every part of my being believes this transition is right, at the right time, with the right ideas.” She conceded she “would be lying” if she claimed ratings were unimportant, but she noted that “Evening News” had narrowed its deficit in the key demographic and that she had shored up a newsroom that, after the convulsions of recent years, had “felt a bit abandoned.”

Zirinsky signed star anchor Gayle King to a new contract at “CBS This Morning,” which had lost momentum after the exit of its former co-anchor Charlie Rose over claims of workplace misconduct. On March 8, the show beat ABC and NBC for the first time on the strength of its exclusive excerpts from Oprah Winfrey’s CBS interview with Meghan Markle. “60 Minutes” and “CBS Sunday Morning” remained highly respected and highly rated.

Some of Zirinsky’s strengths — a love of producing; an encyclopedic knowledge of the network — proved double-edged. Accustomed to the banter of the control room, she sometimes mused aloud about personnel changes, prompting unease and unauthorized leaks; trained to report every fact, she spent months seeking input about her next moves, delaying big decisions.

By the time O’Donnell was officially named “Evening News” anchor in May 2019 — days after the announcement had leaked to The New York Post — Zirinsky had openly told colleagues that the network presidency could be an awkward fit for her. The Post reported last week that Zirinsky, during a lengthy corporate budget meeting, scrawled “I hate my job” on a sheet of paper and held it up.

“I am transparent,” Zirinsky said, when asked about her expressions of frustration with the job. “The passion that I feel sometimes gets misinterpreted. I wouldn’t have traded this for anything. If I was asked today to step into this role, I would do it all over again.”

CBS News has tried a number of approaches over the years to lift its fortunes.

The “Evening News” tried a megawatt star (Katie Couric) and a lesser-known homegrown prospect (Jeff Glor). “CBS This Morning” was a revolving door of anchors and producers.

David Rhodes, who had worked at Fox News before he became the CBS News president in 2011, ran the division in the style of a technocrat before he was replaced by Zirinsky, the old-school shoe leather journalist.

CBS executives said relocating the “Evening News” to Washington included an overdue upgrade for the network’s facilities in the capital. Election years typically attract big audiences, though CBS’s coverage of the 2020 presidential debates ranked behind the major cable news networks and ABC and NBC in total viewers.

The incoming leaders, Khemlani and McMahon, start in May. Khemlani has experience in Hearst’s television business and worked at CBS as a “60 Minutes” producer from 1998 to 2006. McMahon worked at CBS-owned stations in Boston and Minneapolis before her years at ABC.

Zirinsky is in discussions about a significant new production role at CBS. In the interview, she acknowledged the TV news business “is pushing in a different direction.”

“This is setting us up for the future,” she said, adding, “I don’t look in the rear view mirror. I look forward.”

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