CBS News Chief on Swapping Anchors, Internal "Chaos" and D.C. Move: "We Had to Shake Things Up"
As the network's key shows suffer ratings declines, division president Susan Zirinsky bets on Gayle King and switches Jeff Glor for Norah O'Donnell and a move to the nation's capital.
On May 6, it was standing-room-only at CBS News for the division’s 9:30 a.m. meeting as new president Susan Zirinsky remarked about the “worst-kept secret” in TV news: Norah O’Donnell was named the new anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News, displacing Jeff Glor, and the broadcast is moving to Washington, D.C., in the fall.
Meanwhile, Gayle King — who recently finalized a contract extension worth close to $11 million — will be joined at CBS This Morning by Anthony Mason, a 30-year CBS News veteran, and Tony Dokoupil, a rising star at the network who came from MSNBC. The new morning team debuts May 20.
That Zirinsky pulled off sweeping changes before her own self-imposed deadline of May 15, when CBS executives address media buyers in New York during their annual upfront presentation at Carnegie Hall, is an impressive bit of maneuvering. The executive is trying to rebuild a news division rocked by scandal and demoralized by a leadership void since the ouster of CBS CEO Les Moonves and 60 Minutes’ longtime executive producer Jeff Fager in September.
“This organization has really maintained its editorial integrity while chaos was around them,” Zirinsky tells The Hollywood Reporter, expressing frustration over “tabloid” reports about the impending anchor changes.
The network also has seen a ratings dip for its flagship shows: both CBS Evening News and CBS This Morning have suffered dives since 2017. The morning show, which brought in more than $250 million in advertising revenue for 2018, according to Kantar Media, supports the rest of the news division. Fixing it is the top priority, and keeping King in the fold has been Zirinsky’s focus since she took over earlier this year. “Gayle King has become a creative force,” Zirinsky says. “She’s authentic, she’s honest, people reveal sensitive things to her.”
While the newsroom was being briefed by Zirinsky on May 6, Glor was on an airplane somewhere over the Midwest — on his way back to New York after a visit to the Grand Canyon — but was back in time to anchor the CBS Evening News later that day.
Before he went on the air, Glor addressed his staff. “I will be fine. You will be fine,” he said. (It’s unclear when his last day will be — or if Glor will remain at the network in a diminished role — but O’Donnell starts this summer.)
Glor had endured rumors about his job security since the moment he took the Evening News chair in December 2017. And sources close to him say that until days before the official reveal, he thought he had a chance of keeping the anchor gig. “I’ve been talking to Jeff since I came in, and I said, ‘I have to look at everything from the top to the bottom. I don’t know where this will end up,'" says Zirinsky of her decision-making process.
The rumored move to Washington had created some anxiety for the New York-based Evening News staff ahead of the announcement. But the plan is to maintain staff levels in New York while adding additional personnel in the nation’s capital. “I came out of the Washington bureau,” Zirinsky says. “I just instinctively felt, ‘Wow, this could be a game changer.’ [Washington] is the center of gravity right now, for the next several years.”
The executive says O’Donnell’s personal situation had “absolutely” nothing to do with moving the show there. (O’Donnell, a married mom of three, was based in D.C. prior to joining CBS This Morning in 2012, and while working in New York she has been shuttling back to Washington on weekends. She was NBC News’ White House correspondent from 2003-11 and was MSNBC’s chief White House correspondent from 2005-11.)
A tireless producer, Zirinsky is also a collaborative colleague and CBS News “lifer” who lives and breathes the news division. She started in 1972 as a college intern in the Washington bureau, and she was famously the inspiration for Holly Hunter's character in the 1987 film Broadcast News. She peppers interviews and speeches with references to the legacy of CBS News. But Zirinsky’s habit of “thinking out loud,” as she describes it, has likely fueled leaks. “This was a process. It was really important to me to talk to people in the organization, systemically and philosophically, and listen to their ideas.”
As for the rebooted CBS This Morning, King has an established rapport with Mason, who was considered for the job after Charlie Rose was ousted in November 2017, but Moonves nixed the idea, according to multiple sources. That the perennial third-place CBS morning show was nipping at the heels of NBC’s Today before the #MeToo reckoning rocked the news division is a wrenching reminder of opportunities lost.
“We were in a series of unfortunate events,” says Zirinsky. “But we’re through them. I think we have the right players in place. And I hope Jeff stays, because I think he has a lot to contribute to the network. But I think as a company, we had to shake things up.”
This story appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.