It’s makeover time at “The CBS Evening News.”
When Erik Sorenson was named executive producer of “Evening News” last week, replacing longtime Dan Rather loyalist Tom Bettag, he was given the mandate to overhaul the Tiffany web’s flagship newscast. The changes the former exec producer of “CBS This Morning” institutes will be mostly cosmetic while the Gulf War rages, but a postwar “CBS Evening News” under Sorenson, CBS news insiders say, is in store for changes in form, content, style and delivery.
In making its changes in the news division, CBS also bumped up Susan Zirinsky, who had been senior producer of “Evening News,” to the No. 2 slot on the show as senior broadcast producer. The model for the frenetic Holly Hunter character in “Broadcast News,” Zirinsky has a reputation as “a hard news pro.”
“They moved Zirinsky up to send the message out that this was still a hard news show and that we weren’t turning overnight into ‘Good Morning America,’ ” says one CBS news staffer. “It also helped calm Dan [ Rather] down. But it doesn’t mean that once the war is over, what was a traditional nightly newscast won’t be much more in the mode of a tv newsmagazine show.”
“This isn’t to shortsell Erik [ Sorenson], he is a terrific producer,” says Bettag. “But he needs an incredibly competent No. 2 who knows how to pull all the levers of the hard news side and that’s Susan [Zirinsky].”
Zirinsky replaces 30-year-plus CBS News veteran Bill Crawford, who will be reassigned, according to a CBS spokewoman. Ted Savaglio was named acting exec producer of “CBS This Morning.”
The shakeup at CBS News follows a barrage of criticism of “Evening News” over its dismal performance in the first days of the Persian gulf war. Much of the dissatisfaction with the newscast came from CBS affiliates, many of which liberally preempted their own network’s war coverage for CNN’s during the early days of t he gulf conflict.
Season to date, the newscast has been running neck and neck with “NBC Nightly News,” both a distant second behind “ABC World News Tonight.” In the week ending Feb. 11, CBS finished third behind NBC.
Last June, when Eric Ober replaced David Burke as head of the news division, it became an open secret at CBS that Bettag” s days were numbered. However, Bettag bought himself time when, immediately after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, he and Rather traveled to the region and scored a series of scoops, including the first post-invasion interview by an American journalist with Saddam Hussein.
But those early journalistic victories were overshadowed in the eyes of the CBS powers that be by the newscast’s lackluster ratings and slow start out of the gate once war began.
“Our war coverage was slow off the mark,” admits Bettag. “And when you receive the enormous amount of criticism we received, you can’t stand pat.”
The departure of Bettag from the “CBS Evening News” has raised questions about the future of Rather. The superanchor had been Bettag’s most ardent defender and has successfully fought off several previous attempts by CBS higher-ups to oust him.
But there has been a steady erosion of Rather’s power at the web. CBS News honchos delayed Rather’s proposal to expand “CBS Evening News” to an hour right after the gulf war broke out and didn’t greenlight the project until after both ABC and NBC had expanded their newscasts. Last week CBS News announced that it was returning to a half-hour newscast.
There has been open talk at the Tiffany web about a co-anchor arrangement being worked out with Connie Chung, however the CBS p.r. machinery adamantly denies there are any plans to elevate her to anchor status.
“Dan isn’t going anywhere tomorrow,” says a CBS news veteran. “We’d be crazy to change horses in the middle of a war. But management is quite high on Chung.”
Bettag had produced the Rather newscast for the last five years and both men shared a similar vision of the newscast’s mission. Where “ABC World News” and “NBC Nightly News” have moved toward newscasts more centered on news analysis and features a la “Nightline,” “CBS Evening News” had stuck to a more traditional role, which Bettag often defined as being “the nightly newscast of record.” In part, this meant more of a Federal government focus to its coverage.
“Whether the story was foreign or domestic,” says Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, which monitors the Big Three nightly newscasts, “CBS tends to have more of a Beltway bias than its competitors in its coverage.”
This direction was at odds with several CBS bigs, including CBS Broadcast Group topper Howard Stringer (himself a former “Evening News” exec producer) and CBS News prez Eric Ober. Both men have stated they believed the newscast had become stale and needed less of a Washington focus and more of a heartland orientation. At a recent CBS affiliates meeting Ober promised attendees that he was putting a blueprint in place to revamp the beleaguered newscast.
Ober’s first choice for Bettag’s job, according to CBS sources, was Andrew Heyward, but the “48 Hours” executive producer, who has two primetime news shows in development, wasn’t interested.
Sorenson was next on Ober’s list. A former KCBS Los Angeles news director and station manager, Sorenson spent 15 months at “CBS News This Morning,” where he polished the newscast and improved its ratings, but failed to lift it from its last-place status among the network morning couch shows.
Sorenson has a long, cozy history with Ober. It was Ober who hired Sorenson at the network’s Chicago o&o, WBBM. The two men worked closely when Ober was an executive at KCBS and later when the CBS News chief was head of the network’s owned-and-operated stations.
“Sorenson is Ober’s boy,” says a former CBS News exec who worked with both men. “‘ Evening News’ needs some oomph, so Ober brought in a guy who is a capital ‘P’ producer.”