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CBS News’ New Chief Aims to Chart New Course After Era of Turmoil

Susan Zirinsky is a veteran hand at CBS News, having worked there since the days of Watergate. But the actions she takes over the next few months will have more to do with the future of one of the nation’s best-known news outlets, not its past.

CBS on Jan. 6 said Zirinsky would become president and senior executive producer of CBS News, a title that comes with challenges as well as the usual glory. She will assume duties in March, replacing David Rhodes and becoming the first woman to run the storied division. But she takes command of CBS News after more than a year’s worth of turmoil related to fallout from the departure of former anchor Charlie Rose and former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, both ousted after sexual misconduct allegations that both have denied.

During that time, some of CBS News’ top properties — “CBS This Morning,” “Face the Nation” and “CBS Evening News” — have seen their ratings slump after executives tinkered with anchor lineups. Zirinsky will have to find ways to fix those programs while moving the division forward in an era when more news junkies are finding digital ways to soothe their fix.

“Our goal is to grow the audience through the quality of the content to every broadcast, and really energize a competitive spirit that’s already here,” Zirinsky told Variety in an interview. “But you have to have some time.”

In one sense, Zirinsky has had plenty of it. She’s been with CBS News since joining the division in 1972 as a part-time production clerk. Her high standards and blunt way of talking made her the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s fast-talking and demanding news producer in the 1987 film “Broadcast News,” and she has had a hand in everything from the long-running “48 Hours” to the famous documentary “9/11.” Over the years, she has worked with Dan Rather, Lesley Stahl and Ed Bradley.

Now she must carve a new path for CBS News at a difficult juncture. Earlier this year, CBS News opted to replace Rose at “CBS This Morning”with John Dickerson of “Face the Nation.” Dickerson was in turn succeeded by Margaret Brennan. Viewership has suffered at both programs. “CBS This Morning” is of particular a concern, because in recent years it had been a growth story for a news division once famous for not being able to mount a competitive a.m. show. What’s more, morning-news programs often generate a good chunk of the revenue needed to support the bulk of broadcast-network newsgathering activities.

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” (on which Pelley now contributes full-time) and “CBS Sunday Morning” have remained stable, with the former getting some of TV’s top viewership numbers, even though the show continues to operate without a permanent showrunner. Former executive producer Jeff Fager, also the subject of harassment allegations, which he has denied, left after responding in a harsh manner to a CBS News reporter who had been assigned to report on his status at the network.

CBS News needs a fresh start, suggests Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. “As part of CBS’ housecleaning, Rhodes pretty much had to go after all the big scandals in the news division, even though he wasn’t responsible for them,” Feldstein says. “And Zirinsky was the obvious choice to replace him: She’s a well-respected CBS News veteran, and, of course, as a woman her promotion is designed to send a signal that the era of misogyny at CBS is over. Now the network can focus on the long-term structural ratings problems that all three news divisions face.”

“I approach this job as a producer. How do I bring the viewer and the digital users into a space that they feel is bringing value to the coverage?”
Susan Zirinsky, incoming CBS News chief

High on Zirinsky’s to-do list: finding a new executive producer for “CBS This Morning,” with executive producer Ryan Kadro having announced he’s stepping down. But she wants time to talk with staff across the division. 

She’s also eyeing a full-time exec for“60 Minutes.” Executive editor Bill Owens, who has been running the show in the interim, “has been doing a remarkable job,” Zirinsky said.

As for other programs, Zirinsky indicates she and other top staffers will discuss what changes ought to be made. “Erosion of ratings is a collective issue, in terms of the medium,” she said. “Here’s what I feel empowered by: There isn’t a single person at any broadcast who isn’t doing a good job.”

Zirinsky has a different skill set from that of the typical network news president: She was also named senior executive producer at CBS News, and intends to spend time in the studio, not just in her office. “I approach this job as a producer,” she said. “How do I bring the viewer and the digital users into a space that they feel is bringing value to the coverage?”

She inherits some assets from her predecessor. Rhodes helped to create a digital business from scratch. CBS launched streaming outlet CBSN in late 2014, making its correspondents an always-on option during big breaking news moments — without having to invest millions in starting a new cable network.

Digital efforts will continue, Zirinsky says. “One of the things we really need to focus on — it is happening now — is that everything we gather needs to be pushed to where the human race is consuming their news: phones, tablets — even,” she jokes, “screens in the shower.” 

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