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Norah O’Donnell and Susan Zirinsky Ready ‘CBS Evening News’ for Streaming Wars

One of Norah O’Donnell’s highest-profile moments since taking over as anchor at “CBS Evening News” in July didn’t occur behind the desk of the venerable program.

In late September, O’Donnell snared a much-coveted interview with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and immediately pressed him about the assassination of journalist Jamal Khash­ogghi, which the CIA concluded the crown prince ordered. O’Donnell says she had spent the past year trying to secure a conversation with the Saudi leader, and had to jet to the Middle East for a midnight interview with him, then jump on an early-morning plane to get the piece edited and fact-checked just a few days before broadcast on “60 Minutes.”

She agonized over her first question: “Did you order the murder of Jamal Kashoggi?” Would the query stop the conversation before it began? In the end, “we started with the question the world wanted to know the answer to,” she recounts. The Saudi leader responded with a contradictory answer — that he was responsible (the first time he had acknowledged even that) but denied ordering the execution. The anchor made several follow-up efforts.

“I will leave it to others about how forthcoming his answers were,” O’Donnell says, “but I think any time you can see someone’s face when those questions are answered — when you can hear their responses to specific questions that we asked — that can be illuminating.”

After years of questions about the relevance of the late-day format, the hope is that O’Donnell can inject “CBS Evening News,” which has long languished in third place among the broadcast evening newscasts, with more of these big moments. The challenge is steep. Since O’Donnell came aboard, no ratings bump has materialized. For the week of Sept. 23, “The CBS Evening News” was down 10% in total viewers from the same week a year ago, and off 21% among adults 25-54, according to Nielsen data. Rivals “World News Tonight” at ABC and “NBC Nightly News” captured bigger audiences and endured slighter losses over the course of last season.

Next month, CBS will try to shake things up, moving its evening news broadcast — a decades-old program that has ties to Walter Cronkite, the ne plus ultra of TV news anchors — to Washington, D.C., and retool the program for an era of digital consumption. “There’s the opportunity of putting the anchor on the steps of Capitol Hill, or going out and about,” says CBS News president Susan Zirinsky. “Most important is the access to people for stories that might be breaking late, to have someone sitting at the desk with Norah that you would have on a screen if you were sitting in New York.”

The move represents one of Zirinsky’s biggest bets. Since being named to the top role at the news division in January, the executive has shuffled anchors and top producers at both “Evening News” and “CBS This Morning,” and appointed just the third top executive at “60 Minutes” in the show’s half century on air. She inherited a news division with tenuous morale, due to allegations made about the behavior of “CBS This Morning” anchor Charlie Rose and “60 Minutes” chief Jeff Fager. Rose was accused of sexual misconduct; Fager faced claims of allowing an unhealthy culture to exist in the workplace under his watch. Both men issued denials but were pushed out from their jobs. (Fager left after responding harshly to a CBS News reporter covering his circumstances.) Zirinsky has also had to rework a series of talent changes at top programs made before her arrival that simply haven’t captivated audiences. “Changing the culture is critical to me,” she says. “I think we are making strides.”

O’Donnell gets a new spotlight — and plenty of new burdens. She becomes a primary face not only of CBS but also of the larger conglomerate slated to form when the media outlet merges in a few weeks with Viacom. She will be the person giving millions of Americans unsettling headlines about tragedy and politics, and the one trying to inspire them with tales of heroes and small-town Americana. She will be the subject of whisper campaigns from rivals seeking to point out that their evening news broadcasts fare better in the ratings. And like her time-slot competitors, ABC’s David Muir and NBC’s Lester Holt, O’Donnell will become a proxy for all things TV news — what it does right and what it does wrong.

“Each of us gets the headlines on our phones, so how do we go beyond the headlines? One of the things that has informed my own reporting is ‘Tell me somethingI don’t know.’ I’vebeen sharing that with everybody.”
Norah O’Donnell

She has spent the past seven years landing interviews with the likes of the Dalai Lama and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, all without the responsibility she will now have to carry. Why make the change? “Journalism is under attack. It’s under fire,” O’Donnell says during a recent interview at CBS News’ Manhattan headquarters. “And I think there is no more important time to have a trusted source of news.”

In a moment when the occupant of the White House likes to tell Americans about “fake news” and biased reporters, CBS is making a bid to take what is arguably its best-known asset and update it for a different era. O’Donnell’s “Evening News” is expected to serve up a must-need view for anyone who wants to know what’s going on, whether they see it on a traditional TV set or in short-run chunks on a mobile screen. “CBS Evening News” may not get the format’s biggest TV ratings, so the thinking goes, but it can make for an important part of the parent company’s overall business, particularly as younger audiences clamor for information via streaming video.

Washington is where David Brinkley held forth for NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report.” But it has not been a home recently for any of the three broadcast news programs, and CBS is counting on O’Donnell to gain an access edge on rivals staying in New York. That hardly sounds like the gimmick to bring millions back to the 6:30 p.m. evening news, but this is a sector where an on-screen distinction — think of NBC’s “Today” taking its anchors out to meet people wandering around outside its studio, as it did in 1994 — can get people talking and set a precedent that others are forced to follow.

CBS News has tried everything in its power to juice its flagship program, including tapping Katie Couric, who came in to revamp the format in 2006. Over the long haul, viewers have been leaving the evening news for years, though ABC’s “World News Tonight” has added viewers since Muir took over the desk in 2014, and NBC’s “Nightly News” with Holt maintains a lead in the all-important sliver of audience — people between 25 and 54 — most desired by advertisers.

NORAH O'DONNELL CBS News

But “CBS Evening News” continues to lag. One of the chief factors: The network’s station lineup was weakened after some affiliates moved to Fox when that network yanked NFL rights away from CBS for a time starting in 1993. A series of anchor changes under prior management — Scott Pelley, Anthony Mason and Jeff Glor were behind the desk before O’Donnell — hasn’t helped matters.

One news veteran thinks CBS needs to play the role of the upstart. “When you’re in first or second, you don’t want to jeopardize your position. When you’re in third place, it’s time to try something new and different and go for something that separates you from the other two,” says Tom Bettag, a University of Maryland professor and broadcast news veteran who was founding producer of ABC’s “Nightline.” “It may win. It may lose,” he adds, but it may also lend CBS News a more distinct image of “chasing the high road” in journalism, which could have benefits.

Much of that will hinge on O’Donnell. Executives believe her years of experience covering the Pentagon, the White House and Capitol Hill will serve the broadcast well as it holds forth from the center of national action.

“I am not naive to the challenges,” O’Donnell says. “An audience has to find you over a period of time. My friends who have done well with the morning or the evening [news] did so after many years of getting people to find them.” Her early focus must be on making the show a can’t-miss affair, she says, full of scoops and details her competitors don’t have, which in turn will drive new interest in the evening broadcast, its 10 p.m. repeat on CBSN, the CBS News video-streaming service, or the individual segments themselves as they spread out over CBS News digital properties. If ABC News and NBC News have any feeling about CBS’ Washington maneuver, they aren’t saying so publicly. Both organizations declined to make executives available for comment.

O’Donnell has more than just the task of snaring exclusives ahead of her. The evening news “is so much bigger than a 30-minute broadcast, especially in the digital age,” CBS Corp. CEO Joe Ianniello tells Variety. “We are there to grow. We are there to compete. We are there to win.”

On a night when O’Donnell is telling the na­tion about the latest in Trump and a recent contretemps involving a controversial cast hire at “Saturday Night Live,” Zirinsky is enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of the broadcast. She points to a detail that others might not notice: O’Donnell has moved faster out of the intro to her show than the anchors at NBC and ABC.

The CBS broadcast “gets out of the heds before anyone else,” says Zirinsky, watching the behind-the-scenes action from a busy control room. It seems like a small thing, but it’s big for Zirinsky, who points a visitor’s gaze at screens showing that, at least on this night, viewers can see O’Donnell at the desk delivering her first story while NBC and ABC are still in the midst of their openings. Before O’Donnell’s arrival at “CBS Evening News,” the intro consisted of a montage of clips, with someone else’s voice talking over them, that lasted 90 seconds — an eternity in the high-pressure world of a newscast that is, without commercial breaks, just 20 or so minutes long.

“I felt that a changing of the guard on the evening news was necessary to really take the show in a harder direction. Jeff Glor was working his butt off. But I felt a sea change was necessary to change the dynamics.”
Susan Zirinsky

Such tricks and switches are part of the Zirinsky mystique. She is a legendary producer who has been with CBS News since 1972, starting as a part-time desk assistant in the outlet’s Washington bureau just days after the Watergate scandal broke. She wants to keep her hands on the basics. When she took the reins of the news organization last spring, she kept a producer title. It has become trite to repeat the well-worn tidbit that Zirinsky is the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s hard-driving character in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.” Yet it’s part of the executive’s myth: In her office is a prop from the movie — a “Jane Craig” nameplate given to her by Hunter after her promotion.

Given the quick moves of TV viewers to other kinds of video, Zirinsky could have simply thrown up her hands at the idea of reworking “Evening News” and focused on something else. Jeff Glor had been in the anchor’s seat for several months, put in place by Zirinsky’s predecessor, David Rhodes. Colleagues have high praise for Glor’s work, including a report on the erosion of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, or a recent dispatch from the Grand Canyon. But internally, there was a sense the show needed more edge. “I felt that a changing of the guard on the evening news was necessary to really take the show in a harder direction,” says Zirinsky. “Jeff Glor is brilliant at storytelling, and I felt he was working his butt off. He was well liked and liked going in the field. But I felt a sea change was necessary to change the dynamics.”

She consulted with one of the few remaining links to a different era of TV news — Bob Schieffer, the longtime CBS News anchor who held forth at “CBS Evening News” and “Face the Nation.” Some within the organization suggest the Washington idea was hatched by Schieffer. “This was Susan’s idea. Susan gets 100% of the credit, but we did talk about it,” he says. “There’s just no better strategy than getting your best people as close as you can to the story.” CBS is spending “a few million” on the move, says a person familiar with the matter. Zirinsky declined to comment on the costs of taking the show to D.C.

The news executive is banking that the show’s long ties to TV news history will help extend its future. “In this evolution of linear television and digital, the historic placeholders still matter. The evening news remains a legacy broadcast. It has within its soul the very tenets that give this entire organization its mantra. It’s really about straightforward journalism. It’s about investigations. It’s about breaking stories,” she says. “But that does not mean we are living in a tower holding on to memories of the past. It means we want to take this iconic broadcast and make it a broadcast for the future.”

That has meant following an O’Donnell initiative: Never stop adding new details to stories. The anchor’s “Evening News” broadcast is peppered with phrases like “CBS News has learned,” and she has pressed the staff to find fresh elements they can unveil during the program. “Each of us gets the headlines on our phones, so how do we go beyond the headlines?” asks O’Donnell. “One of the things that has informed my own reporting is ‘Tell me something I don’t know.’ I’ve been sharing that same kind of value with everybody.” The broadcast should ramp up with “more breaking news and more urgency,” she says, adding that news junkies will hear the information and seek it out.

SUSAN ZIRINSKI CBS News

Getting the news is something that has fascinated O’Donnell from a young age. Her father served in the military for 30 years, and newspapers and magazines held information that could affect the circumstances of his deployment. Her mother would routinely hold on to various publications as diverse as National Geographic, Stars and Stripes and the Journal of the American Medical Assn. and wait until she had time to read them, then highlight important passages. As a teenager, O’Donnell would tell her mom when it was time to get rid of the piles. Her parents grew up in New York City, where “newspapers and television news were important parts of our families’ lives,” says Francis O’Donnell, her father. “In turn, Norah’s childhood was also influenced by a household in which newspapers and media were ever present.”

With the impeachment inquiry cranking up, the Washington move will essentially put O’Donnell in the field every day, giving the show a sort of you-are-there feel, Zirinsky suggests — and no matter who is president in the days ahead, there will always be a compelling story to explain to viewers. “The ability to bring in high-level people in, like, 20 minutes if something were to break?” asks Zirinsky. “That’s possible.”

CBS News is already well aware of the ratings race for its evening flagship, but going forward, O’Donnell and Zirinsky will also have to deal with the industry’s streaming wars.

“U.S. news travels very well, ” says CBS Corp. CEO Ianniello, who will remain as overseer of the news division after the expected merger with Viacom. He hopes O’Donnell can capture more than just the evening-news regulars who draw millions of dollars in ads from Liberty Mutual and Prevagen. The business behind news content, he says, is increasingly becoming global in addition to digital.

Others see a similar opportunity. Comcast’s NBCUniversal is expected to launch an international news outlet that makes use of its recent acquisition of European broadcaster Sky as well as other news operations NBC has in Europe. AT&T’s CNN has long operated a thriving international business that delivers domestic info and other programming to U.S. travelers and the world.

CBSN, the CBS News streaming-video outlet, is packaged inside versions of the company’s on-demand video service “CBS All Access,” says Ianniello, and news content is a key driver of subscriptions in places like Australia and Canada. The company expects to launch CBSN in Europe and Latin America in the months to come. “We are seeing the usage is really high, and it’s because of the U.S. news,” Ianniello says.

That’s part of the reason Zirinsky is contemplating other ways to use the content of O’Donnell’s broadcast. Some stories that are cut down for the 20-minute newscast can run longer on CBSN, she says, where viewers are looking for more than short-form content. Can she envision a day when O’Donnell signs off her TV broadcast and then delivers a portion of “CBS Evening News” that’s online only? “Everything is possible,” she replies.

Lots of people like to talk about the evening news as if it’s an artifact from a different era, a moment when people didn’t toil beyond the confines of a 9-to-5 workday and needed to gather together at a particular time to glean the latest headlines. But even cutting-edge Silicon Valley types are trying to replicate some of the broadcast format. What will a short-form report from Quibi bring to the table that evening news does not? Hasn’t ABC made its “World News” available on Hulu?

With those things in mind, one can see why O’Donnell wanted the new role — even if the business model may quickly be changing. For now, there’s always another deadline.

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