Susan Zirinsky, the CBS News executive known to her colleagues as “Z,” is getting ready for a heady tenure as the new president of CBS News. Gayle King, one of her top anchors, on live TV on Monday morning described her as a “badass.”
But first, she asks for your forbearance.
CBS News is grappling with some potent challenges, including ratings declines at some of its best-known shows: “Face the Nation” “CBS Evening News” and “CBS This Morning” Both the morning program and the venerable newsmagazine “60 Minutes” need new top producers. And then there’s the fact that the news unit, like its parent company, is emerging from a probe of its corporate culture, sparked largely by the late-2017 ouster of Charlie Rose after allegations of sexual harassment – which he denied – were leveled against him.
“We don’t live in a patient society, but listening to what works and what doesn’t helps formulate a plan for what will,” says Zirinsky, who was last night named president and senior executive producer of CBS News – duties she will take on in March. “We are about to enter into an enormous political cycle. Journalism couldn’t be at a more important place in history,” she adds. “I think what challenges us is what is the best path forward.”
She expects to focus early on naming new people to lead “CBS This Morning” and “60 Minutes,” she says. At the first, executive producer Ryan Kadro has indicated he will step down in early January, while Bill Owens, the executive editor at “60,” has been running the program since the departure last year of executive producer Jeff Fager, who was ousted after issuing a harsh text to a CBS News reporter investigating allegations of harassment made against him. Fager has denied the claims.
Owens, says Zirinsky, “has been doing a remarkable job,” citing not only recent features and investigations on the show, but also recent “crashing” segments on more immediate events. This past Sunday, for example, “60 Minutes” made some news with an Anderson Cooper interview of freshman lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But there is a sense of change in the wind in the halls of CBS News and in the New York offices of “60 Minutes” across West 57th Street. Some recent talent changes at the news division’s flagship programs have not lured new viewers.
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 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, has also seen erosion in recent months – a sore spot because morning-news programs often draw a good chunk of the revenue needed support the bulk of broadcast-network newsgathering activities. Meanwhile, the decision to replace Scott Pelley at “CBS Evening News” with Jeff Glor has not galvanized the program. Indeed, “CBS Evening News” has lost viewers and fallen further behind its evening-news rivals at NBC and ABC. “60 Minutes” and “CBS Sunday Morning” have remained stable.
“I’ve been in the job for seven hours, so I need a little bit more time,” Zirinsky says, but she intends to talk with many CBS News executives about all of the news division’s programs. “We will toss around ideas. We will look at how we stack our shows,” she says. “Erosion of ratings is a collective issue, in terms of the medium,” she adds. “Here’s what I feel empowered by: There isn’t a single person at any broadcast who isn’t doing a good job.”
The ratings tumbles take place as other TV-news rivals are expanding into areas that have been of particular focus for CBS News. 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.
Zirinsky says CBS isn’t backing away from international coverage and other hard news, citing the news division’s commitment to have correspondents at news events around the world and CBS News’ alliance with the BBC. “There’s nothing better than the BBC. Sorry,” she says. “CBS This Morning,” meanwhile, continues to put an accent on coverage of business, technology and foreign affairs that aren’t always in similar supply at counterparts.
CBS News has been affected by the “#MeToo” movement, she acknowledges, and will continue to be. “It has led to a dynamic realization that the past is not the present,” she says, and CBS News will remain vigilant about its employee culture.
Zirinsky says she will cut a different figure as a top news executive. As senior executive producer of CBS News, she intends to be in the studio frequently. “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?”
Zirinsky says her big job is figuring out ways to get people talking, posting and tweeting about stories from CBS News. She enjoys taking risks and going after big stories. Going forward, she says, she wants to know “how can we distinguish ourselves and perhaps get someone’s attention, and get them to say, ‘Wow, did you see that on CBS? Memorable.’ And memorable is shareable.”
(Above, pictured: CBS News’ Susan Zirinsky addresses CBS News staff)