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CBS News Faces New Challenges in Weeks Ahead

At CBS News, President David Rhodes has a series of important decisions to make that could affect the trajectories of some of TV’s best-known news programs.

As its parent company seeks to move forward from recent seismic events – the ouster of its former CEO, Leslie Moonves; a corporate probe into its workplace culture; and a near-showdown in court with the company’s controlling shareholder, National Amusements Inc. – CBS News has a number of challenges looming. Meeting some of them has been delayed by the recent corporate controversies, but Rhodes is likely to focus on new remedies in the weeks ahead.

The executive is expected in coming weeks to name a permanent executive producer at a network flagship, “60 Minutes” and replace a departing top executive at “CBS This Morning.” He will also have to grapple with ratings shortfalls at three of the news unit’s best-known programs: “CBS Evening News,” “Face The Nation” and “CBS This Morning.”

Many of the shows have suffered in the wake of anchor changes. When Charlie Rose was ousted last year from “CBS This Morning” in the wake of allegations about sexual harassment, CBS News opted to replace him with John Dickerson of “Face the Nation.” Dickerson was in turn succeeded by Margaret Brennan.  Viewership at both programs has suffered.  “CBS This Morning,” in recent years a growth story for a news division once famous for not being able to mount a competitive A.M. program, saw its overall viewership fall 3% in the 2017-2018 TV season. Viewership has fallen at rivals “Today” and “Good Morning America” as well, but those shows have bigger audiences than their CBS counterpart.

Meanwhile, the decision to replace Scott Pelley at “CBS Evening News” with Jeff Glor has not resulted in new audience. Indeed, the program has lost viewers and fallen further behind its evening-news rivals at NBC and ABC. “60 Minutes” and “CBS Sunday Morning” have remained stable, with the former getting some of TV’s top viewership numbers, even after the staff was stunned by the departure of executive producer Jeff Fager.

CBS News did not respond to queries seeking comment.

To be sure, Rhodes has steered CBS News forward in many areas, helping to create an entirely new digital business from scratch. CBS was first among the big broadcast networks to launch a sustained streaming service, CBSN (ABC tested ‘ABC News Now” last decade), making its news anchors and correspondents an always-on option during big breaking news moments without having to invest millions in starting a new cable network. An increasing number of correspondents, like Glor, Valdimir Duthiers and Major Garrett, appear on both the linear and streaming outlets.  That idea is expanding, as CBS starts to launch local-news streaming outlets as well.

But the ratings tumbles take place as other TV-news rivals are growing. NBC News, under Comcast, has made a big bet on international news. In 2017, NBC News invested $30 million in a 25% stake in France-based Euronews, dispatching former NBC News President Deborah Turness to oversee NBC’s part in the business. More recently, NBC parent Comcast purchased European broadcaster Sky PLC, giving NBC News even more of a foothold overseas. CNN, meanwhile, has established new digital beachheads, including verticals in politics and technology.

Change is in the wind, which may prove unsettling to CBS News staffers. Ryan Kadro, the executive producer of “CBS This Morning,” is leaving the program early next month, and a new leader is expected to be named soon. More scrutiny will follow Rhodes’ candidate to lead “60 Minutes” into a new era. Only two people have run the program in its more than 50 seasons on air.

The two most likely known candidates are Bill Owens, the show’s executive editor, and Susan Zirinsky, the veteran producer of “48 Hours” who also supervises CBS’ special programming and much of its breaking-news coverage. Recent speculation has held that CBS News could give the job of running the program to Owens, while elevating another senior producer, Tanya Simon. Zirinsky, meanwhile, could be in the running for an elevated role that might let her keep her current duties while having some sort of eye over the newsmagazine. But no decision has been made yet and all options remain open to Rhodes. His first step will likely lead to many others.

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