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After months of uncertainty and cratering morale, CBS News is now in the throes of a reset under incoming president Susan Zirinsky, who officially takes over the division Friday (March 1), though she’s been grappling with the task since her appointment was announced in January. And Gayle King, who launched CBS This Morning in 2012 alongside Charlie Rose, has emerged as the heart of the news division. It’s why King’s contract has become a topic of much media speculation and utmost importance in the halls of CBS.
“As far as I know I still have a contract there,” King joked to The Hollywood Reporter during a phone interview Thursday to talk about a series of interviews she did related to the explosive Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland.
But her current deal is up this year and those who know King, 64, say she has been concerned about the direction of CBS This Morning, which has endured a worrisome ratings slide amid anchor changes. If she stays at CBS News, these people have said, she wants some assurance that her show is going to be positioned to succeed. And so while Zirinsky has many issues to deal with — she recently appointed Bill Owens as executive producer of 60 Minutes — her immediate priority, say numerous CBS News sources, is extending King’s contract.
“Everything hinges on Gayle,” said one CBS News staffer. “She wants to be part of something competitive. I think they have some heavy lifting to do still with Gayle.”
Zirinsky’s appointment was universally cheered at CBS News, literally. “When it was announced that she was going to be the head cook, there was a cheer throughout the building,” said King. “Everyone was thrilled that she was going to be the new person in charge. She’s widely respected and very much admired.”
And in interviews Zirinsky expressed confidence that she would have the available resources to succeed. This is critical because CBS News has never paid the kind of eye-popping salaries that its broadcast competitors do. ABC News is said to be paying Good Morning America host Robin Roberts close to $18 million annually and recently renewed her co-host George Stephanopoulos’ contract for between $15 million and $18 million, reportedly. Meanwhile, NBC News paid close to $70 million to lure Megyn Kelly from Fox News in an ultimately failed experiment that ended last December after less than two years. (Kelly left with the full value of her three-year deal.) But CBS anchor salaries are considerably less. It’s been a bone of contention among agents, who often pointed to the outsize compensation of erstwhile CEO Leslie Moonves.
King is said to be making $5.5 million annually on her current three-year deal. When Rose was ousted in November 2017 amid widespread misconduct claims, his representative, David Geffen had extracted an agreement — never consummated — for an annual salary around $5 million. When King and co-host Norah O’Donnell, who joined the show in the summer of 2012, negotiated their second contracts at CBS This Morning, they made a point of asking for equal pay with Rose.
In the morning news race, GMA has a light edge over Today among total viewers (4.25 million compared with 4.19 million for the month of February, according to Nielsen), while Today leads in the critical 25-54 demographic. CBS This Morning is third in both measures, averaging 3.35 million viewers in February with 919,000 in the demo.
But the show has been a bright spot at CBS News, where decades of morning TV misfires had hobbled the division’s ability to realize a morning TV windfall similar to its competitors’. Even in third place, CBS This Morning still brings in close to $100 million annually, according to insiders. But the anchor turmoil has taken a toll. When Rose was ousted, former CBS News president David Rhodes moved Face the Nation host John Dickerson from Washington, D.C., to join King and O’Donnell. Months later he added Bianna Golodryga as the show’s fourth anchor, a move that King found out about the day before it was announced. And much of the CBS This Morning staff was also blindsided by the news last December of Ryan Kadro’s departure as executive producer of the broadcast.
Recent news reports that O’Donnell could replace Jeff Glor as the anchor of CBS Evening News, which has experienced ratings erosion since Glor took over from Scott Pelley, have only added to the consternation inside CBS News. Zirinsky has tamped down those rumors, which have been swirling almost since Glor took over in December 2017.
Meanwhile, CBS This Morning is also without a permanent executive producer. But Zirinsky’s first order of business is King. And given King’s profile, résumé and connections, she would seem to have options on the open market.
King has always kept contract talks close to the vest. And when asked about a rampant rumor that ABC News could attempt to poach her, King noted: “You know that there are all sorts of rumors about everything. I’ll tell you this: I’m not going to be one of these people who leaks stuff out. I’m just not going to do that. I will say that’s very flattering to hear.”
An ABC News source told THR, “If someone as talented as Gayle became available who wouldn’t have that conversation?” NBC News sources say there are no conversations ongoing. Officially, the network declined to comment.
As to whether King sees herself at CBS News this time next year, she said: “Oooh, that’s a good question. All I can say is I really love my job. And I think it’s kind of foolish to predict the future.”
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