There could be an A+ job in the news business waiting for the CBS producer known to many, simply, as “Z.”
Susan Zirinsky, often referred to by the first letter of her last name. has been at CBS News since 1972, but it’s what she might do in 2018 and going forward that could be infinitely more interesting.
She has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments during her CBS tenure, but they have had nothing to do with the network’s venerable newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” Zirinsky currently oversees the long-running program “48 Hours,” but also has supervised award-winning documentaries and breaking news specials. She even served as the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s high-standards news producer in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.”
She knows what it takes to keep a mature brand modern. In 2015, she tested a limited-run podcast to accompany one of the hour-long crime stories that regularly air on “48 Hours. “Even though you have a core brand that is established, appreciated, you have to look for the ability to grow it, expand it, keep it relevant,” she told Variety at the time.
Some staffers at CBS News think she is a likely internal candidate to take the “60” job, which has been vacant since CBS ousted former executive producer Jeff Fager last week, citing a violation of company policy. Fager acknowledged he sent a “harsh” text to a CBS News reporter who was examining claims made by The New Yorker about Fager tolerating a boys’ club atmosphere at CBS News and touching certain female staffers inappropriately. Fager has denied the allegations.
Having Zirinsky at the top of CBS News’ most revered program could solve some issues for David Rhodes, president of the news division. If named to the role, she would be the first female producer to run the show – and only the third person in its 50-plus seasons to do so. Placing Zirinsky at “60 Minutes” could also help break down barriers between tony “60 Minutes” and the rest of the news division, which tend to have separate production processes.
During his time at CBS News, Rhodes has shaken up many of its best-known programs. Both “Face the Nation” and “CBS Evening News” have had new anchors arrive in recent months – Margaret Brennan and Jeff Glor – while John Dickerson took the seat inhabited by the ousted Charlie Rose earlier this year at “CBS This Morning.” Rhodes has also worked to integrate CBS’ news programs with digital processes, so that staffers and anchors are also contributing to CBSN, the company’s streaming-video hub. Having Zirinsky named to the job would continue his efforts by putting a CBS News producer, not a “60 Minutes” veteran, at the helm.
Zirinsky did not respond to a query seeking comment sent via social media and CBS News declined to make her available for comment. Rhodes and CBS News have acknowledged a search for the next chief of “60 Minutes” has begun, but have not disclosed a timeline to complete it. The show’s 51st season starts September 30.
Staffers at “60 Minutes” are eyeing the process warily, according to one person familiar with the show. This person acknowledged that Zirinsky has had “an amazing career,” but also noted that “60 Minutes” can be a hard place to tame. Senior producers are known to go back and forth agonizingly over stories, vetting them with microscopic attention to detail. The pressure brought to bear on a particular segment can be intense.
Several staffers continue to hope Bill Owens, the “60 Minutes” executive editor who had long worked with Fager, will get the nod. Owens is running the show currently and is likely focused on the show’s new season. Another senior producer at “60 Minutes,” Tanya Simon – daughter of Bob Simon, a former correspondent for the show – has also been cited as a potential candidate. CBS News could also decide to go with someone who hails from outside the news organization, though several people familiar with the situation suggest that could be hard to make work.
Zirinsky has supervised her share of longer-form reportage. In addition to “48 Hours,” she has produced everything from “39 Days,” a recent documentary looking at the movement that formed in the aftermath of shootings in Parkland, Florida, to “9/11″ – a documentary on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that included the only footage of the first plane going into the north tower of the World Trade Center and of activity inside the Trade Center before the towers fell.
Not everything has been so serious. She has also produced a primetime special that looked back at David Letterman’s career and was executive producer of two specials for Tyra Banks’ “America’s Next Top Model.”
Zirinsky has in the past also expressed a willingness to experiment. In 2014, she tried to counterprogram NBC’s Olympics coverage with a two-hour “48 Hours” that focused on the plight of a New Orleans marching bands made up of schoolchildren. The key factor behind that, she told Variety at the time, was to find the best way to show what her staffers could do: “The creativity and power of people I work with allows me to take chances and push the envelope.”