Norah O’Donnell’s ‘CBS Evening News’ Isn’t Just For TV Viewers

Norah O'Donnell's 'CBS Evening News' Isn't
Courtesy of CBS News

Norah O’Donnell will make her “CBS Evening News” debut, of course, on TV. But that doesn’t mean CBS News isn’t mindful of the new ways in which news aficionados get their information in an era of smartphone alerts and viral tweets.

When O’Donnell launches a new era at the venerable newscast this week, complete with an interview with Jeff Bezos and Caroline Kennedy, she will become the latest anchor of a program tied to longstanding TV tradition. This is the newscast, after all, once led by Walter Cronkite.  And yet, O’Donnell may be able to kick off a few new conventions.

“We value the legacy of this broadcast, and Norah does as well, but we know we have to have an evolution into the next world,” says Susan Zirinsky, president of CBS News, in an interview. “CBS Evening News” will appear each weekday evening at 10 p.m. on CBSN, the company’s streaming-video hub devoted to news programming, Zirinsky says, and there are plans to ensure that important news stories appear via social media and streaming video as well as on TV. “While the broadcast is really important, we are very aware and working hard at having it be a 24/7 brand.”

CBS News has good reason to consider newer forms of distribution. A Pew Research Center study found that in 2017, only half of U.S. adults get news regularly from television, compared with 57% a year earlier. The evening news has proven resistant to that trend. Pew found 5.3 million TV sets on average tuned into the evening news on ABC, NBC and CBS during their scheduled time slot in 2018, compared with 5.2 million a year earlier. For the five day week ended July 5, the three newscasts captured overall viewership of more than 19.84 million, according to Nielsen.

Advertisers, however, are starting to move elsewhere. The three network newscasts took in a little more than $518 million through commercials, according to Pew – down 6% from the nearly $552.4 million they captured in 2017.

Some of these factors no doubt played a role in CBS News’ decision in recent weeks to overhaul both its morning and evening programs in radical fashion. Zirinsky has placed big bets on O’Donnell and Gayle King, respectively,  to lead CBS’ evening news and A.M. programs. O’Donnell, a reporting veteran who works hard to snare big newsmaker interviews and who has years of experience covering the machinations of Washington, D.C., may have the headier task.

The networks’ morning programs are the biggest contributors to the bottom lines of their news divisions. Evening newscasts, long a staple of the nation’s information diet, have faced new struggles with relevance as Americans with longer commutes and work days find getting to the TV by early evening difficult while audiences with digital savvy track stories with a swipe of their iPhone of Samsung Galaxy. CBS will attempt to bolster its evening program further when O’Donnell takes her newscast to a perch in Washington D.C. later in the year.

“CBS Evening News” has struggled in the ratings since the days of Dan Rather. NBC’s “Nightly News” has eked out a small lead among the viewers advertisers care about most, people between 25 and 54. ABC’s “World News Tonight” is watched by the most viewers overall. In recent months, the CBS newscast has seen its viewership levels tumble further, not rise.

But CBS has put heavy effort into broadening the digital distribution of its news content.  In 2014, it launched CBSN, the first broadcast network to add a daily news live-stream. Since that time, the company has augmented its efforts with documentaries, political programs and even a digital-first morning program. CBS has also begun launching streaming hubs devoted to the news-gathering efforts of its affiliates in cities like New York and Los Angeles.

In this environment, Zirinsky says, news that breaks on digital media can quickly become the lead story of “CBS Evening News.”  “Quite frankly, the walls of Jericho are coming down when it comes to digital,” she adds.

The network remains focused on its traditional TV viewership as well.  New audience will come, says Zirinsky, “but – patience. This is a glacial climb.”

She believes the nation craves “good journalism first. This is a trusted broadcast. No spin. No point of view. Smart.” CBS News will continue to place emphasis on foreign reporting and investigative work, and is likely to make a few tweaks to the evening-news broadcast. “The look is sophisticated, but not distracting,” says Zirinsky, noting that no one wants to undermine a solid look at the news of the day with an overabundance of flashy graphic displays.

And O’Donnell wants to do a newscast that does more than just tick off the headlines, Zirinsky says. “Norah’s whole thing is why does it matter, what’s the impact,” she explains.

And then, the network has to get her report in front of as many people as possible – even if they don’t get home in time to see her live presentation. “We want to be where people are consuming their news,” says the executive. “Which means we want to be everywhere.”