As Clock Ticks on '60 Minutes' Leader Search, Staffers Take Sides

Bill Owens or Susan Zirinsky - Split-Getty-H 2018
Tommaso Boddi/WireImage; Paul Morigi/Getty Images

A decision on the internal bake-off to succeed Jeff Fager isn't imminent, sources say.

The bake-off between Susan Zirinsky and Bill Owens for the top job at 60 Minutes is causing anxiety among the program’s staffers.

Nearly two months after Jeff Fager was dismissed, Owens, who was promoted to executive editor of the broadcast in 2008, continues as interim executive producer. And Zirinsky — a veteran of the news division who runs weekend crime newsmagazine 48 Hours as well as the unit’s breaking news coverage — is the only other candidate seriously being considered, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. Both have supporters inside CBS News. And several 60 staffers who support Owens also profess a deep respect for Zirinsky’s abilities and hard news bona fides. But high-level sources tell THR that a decision is not imminent.

There is a distinct difference in the way the two shows are viewed internally; 60 Minutes is the iconic, prestige broadcast, while 48 Hours does not command the same level of reverence. It is something that has rankled Zirinsky and her staff, understandably so. And that narrative is playing out in the internal jockeying, with some staffers expressing concern at Zirinsky’s candidacy.

The New York Post reported that some correspondents have threatened to quit if Zirinsky gets the job, but noted that the “identity of the correspondents could not be learned.” One insider expressed amusement that correspondents would threaten to quit but not consent to being named.

In some cases, it is easy to divine which correspondents support whom; Scott Pelley expressed pointed admiration for Owens while accepting an Emmy at the 36th annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards ceremony Sept. 28. Others are staying out of it. During a recent interview with THR, Bill Whitaker declined to discuss the turmoil at CBS, except to say: "The good part is that we are so incredibly busy that we don’t have a whole lot of time to think and worry about the politics going on. You take a look at that first broadcast of the season and it was pretty darn good. Despite all the turmoil, we’re all sort of heartened by that."

Zirinsky, who sources say has not openly lobbied for the job, sent an email to her staff rebutting a Post report that she had become the frontrunner. “Don’t believe anything you read,” Zirinsky, 66, wrote in the subject line of the Oct. 19 email. There have already been multiple stories noting the support that Owens, 51, has internally. 

Of course, the state of CBS Corporation overall is ratcheting up the anxiety. Joe Ianniello, who was tapped as acting CEO in the wake of Leslie Moonves’ resignation last September, has earned praise for a steady hand at a time of unprecedented upheaval. Last week he appointed Showtime’s David Nevins in the newly created role of chief creative officer. The Oct. 18 announcement also included the appointment of longtime Showtime finance head Chris Spade as executive vp and CFO for CBS Corp. But just two days later, Richard Parsons, who was acting chairman of the board, announced that he was relinquishing the position, citing his ongoing battle with multiple myeloma. Sources tell THR that multiple CBS News staffers also have reached out to Ianniello about the turmoil there. But Ianniello has stressed that the 60 Minutes decision will be made by CBS News president David Rhodes. 

Hanging over the restructuring is a top-to-bottom investigation and culture assessment by two separate outside law firms. The review stems from allegations against Moonves as well as Charlie Rose, who was fired almost a year ago. CBS has come under intense pressure to release the results of that investigation. “I don’t know how we move forward if we — we at CBS — don’t have full transparency about what we find,” Gayle King noted on CBS This Morning in the wake of the misconduct allegations that toppled Moonves. “In our own house we must have transparency.”