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CBS News Shakes Up Talent Relations Ahead of Contract Talks With Top Anchors

Alison-Pepper-CBS-News
Courtesy of CBS News

CBS News is recalibrating its talent relations efforts as it faces key contract-renewal talks next year with Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, the network’s two most visible anchors.

Alison Pepper, a longtime CBS News executive who spent about two decades at the ViacomCBS news unit at “60 Minutes” and in talent recruitment and development, is returning in a senior role to oversee talent relations. She will replace Laurie Orlando, who has been CBS News’ senior vice president of talent strategy since 2016, and will move into a similar role for CBS’ owned and operated stations and local streaming efforts. ViacomCBS combined its news and station operations in April under executives Neeraj Khemlani and Wendy McMahon.

Pepper will report to Khemlani, who supervises news operations, while Orlando will report to McMahon, who oversees the local TV properties. Both appointments are effective November 1, and each executive will be a senior vice president of talent strategy.

The new structure reflects changes in how key parts of ViacomCBS now operate. The company is working to put all its news gathering under a single umbrella.

“Laurie is an exceptional partner who is passionate about our mission and believes wholeheartedly in discovering and developing the next generation of community journalists,” said McMahon, in a prepared statement.  “With nearly four decades in the industry, she will be invaluable to our station teams as we actively retain and recruit creators committed to leading the way in local news and information.”

“Alison is an experienced, strategic professional with a sharp eye for the caliber of journalists who elevate and differentiate CBS News across the industry,” said Khemlani, in a statement. “Alison has attracted and recruited a diverse range of talent to CBS News over the years and we welcome her back to continue this important work. She brings the unique experience of being a successful news executive and an agent at one of the leading talent agencies to this position.”

Pepper, who has been working as an agent for CAA, representing correspondents such as CBS News’ Enrique Acevedo, rejoins CBS News at an interesting moment. Contracts for both Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell are expected to lapse in 2022, and speculation has already started to swirl over whether both will be able to renew with the same or better terms than they won in previous negotiations. Top executives at ViacomCBS are expected to play a significant role in those talks.

CBS has built its morning program around King, betting that her knack for direct conversations with a range of interesting newsmakers and celebrities will propel its A.M. efforts. The recently retooled “CBS Mornings” remains in third place versus ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today,” and, under Khemlani, is focusing more on in-depth pieces cut from similar cloth as the network’s venerable “Sunday Morning,” a staple of weekend viewing. It is well known that King, 66 years old, recently had a grandchild, and there is some thought she might be interested in spending more time with family.

King, a veteran of the TV-news business,  has faced similar situations. In 2019, King signed a new deal under former CBS News president Susan Zirinsky that gave her a bump in pay and made her the center of the morning program.  “I had certain things that I wanted, and they weren’t going to give them to me, and I was going to leave. It’s really that simple. I liked where the show was going and I was excited about the new team,” King told Variety in 2020 about her previous negotiations.

CBS has also bet on O’Donnell to carry a “CBS Evening News” based in Washington, D.C., not New York, as has been the tradition for years. O’Donnell has notched a string of notable scoops, including investigations into sexual assault in the military, and, more recently, interviews with David Chipman, President Biden’s former nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Huma Abedin, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton. Even so, the program lags its ABC and NBC rivals in viewership, and Khemlani has in his early tenure in the role focused intently on the financials of each CBS News program, according to several people familiar with the matter.