Morning News Upheaval Continues With Norah O'Donnell Replacing Erica Hill on 'CBS This Morning'

2:53 PM PST 07/26/2012 by Marisa Guthrie
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

“Transitions like this are obviously challenging for everyone involved,” said CBS News president David Rhodes. “But it’s possible to manage them so that they’re less challenging.”

Just over six months after it launched, CBS This Morning is making its first anchor change, adding to the general morning news upheaval that has already seen an awkward transition at Today and will soon have Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts on medical leave as she undergoes treatment for a blood disease.

On Thursday morning, CBS News chairman Jeff Fager announced that chief White House correspondent Norah O’Donnell would replace Erica Hill as co-host of CBS This Morning with Gayle King and Charlie Rose.

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The CBS press release hit reporters’ in-boxes just 20 minutes before ABC News president Ben Sherwood was set to take the stage at the Beverly Hilton to open the network’s TCA summer press tour days. And O'Donnell and her new co-hosts will be at TCA on Sunday when CBS presents its new fall slate to reporters gathered in Beverly Hills for the annual summer confab.

O’Donnell filled in on CBS This Morning last week. And Hill, who was there Thursday morning, has a planned day off tomorrow. Fager said he hopes that Hill stays at CBS News, where she has been full-time since leaving CNN in January 2010. “She’s a real pro,” he said.

“Transitions like this are obviously challenging for everyone involved,” added CBS News president David Rhodes. “But it’s possible to manage them so that they’re less challenging.” And then he added in obvious allusion to Ann Curry’s tearful June 28 farewell on Today: “It’s also possible to manage them so they're more challenging, we’re trying to do less.”

O’Donnell will officially start sometime after Labor Day. But she’ll be featured prominently in the network's coverage of the political conventions in late August and early September, and executives anticipate that will provide a natural springboard for her to assume her role on the morning show.

O’Donnell, who lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and their three young children, will relocate to New York. And CBS News will name a new White House correspondent in the near future. As for CBS This Morning, Fager, Rhodes and executive producer Chris Licht said they have been assessing all aspects of the program since it launched Jan. 9 as an alternative to morning TV as usual.

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“We’ve been looking very closely at the casting, the editorial and the production of the broadcast,” said Rhodes. But they stopped short of characterizing O’Donnell’s guest stint last week as an “audition.”

“She’s been on the radar since she got here,” said Fager, adding that she's working on a piece for 60 Minutes when that show returns from its usual summer hiatus.

The program’s harder news focus – and lack of some of the fluffier morning TV staples including cooking segments – has not moved the ratings needle significantly. And while Fager noted that he’d like more viewers to discover the show, he said, “We are really proud of this broadcast. We think it’s the best broadcast in the morning. And we’ve just got to make it even better, particularly at a moment when real news matters. This is hugely important to us.”

Executives felt that O'Donnell exuded a natural chemistry with Rose and King. But it is her reporting that makes her the right fit for the new CBS News brand of morning TV, they said. She distinguished herself on the Secret Service scandal involving Colombian prostitutes. And last week on This Morning, she showcased her interviewing skills by pressing former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty on his assertion that Mitt Romney’s single year of tax returns was a “standard” release for a presidential nominee. (Pawlenty is among the names in circulation as a Romney running mate.)

“She really just popped off the screen,” said Licht.

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie

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