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ViacomCBS in Hunt for Successor to CBS News Chief Susan Zirinsky

NORAH O'DONNELL SUSAN ZIRINSKI CBS NEWS
Celeste Sloman for Variety

ViacomCBS has been searching for a successor to CBS News President Susan Zirinsky, according to people familiar with the matter, as media companies place new emphasis on their news divisions to attract the big, live audiences that advertisers and distributors continue to crave while more consumers migrate to streaming video.

George Cheeks, CEO of ViacomCBS’ CBS assets, has been holding talks with potential candidates for weeks, according to these people. There is no set timeline for Zirinsky to step down. She is likely to take a new role as a top producer of CBS News programming that can appear across the company’s venues, whether they include the CBS broadcast network, its CBSN live-streaming portal, or its subscription-based streaming hub, Paramount Plus. Zirinsky has long been known for her love of overseeing news production, and retained a title as a senior executive producer when she took on the role of president.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported Zirinsky is nearing a new production deal with ViacomCBS. CBS News declined to comment and a spokesman for CBS could not be reached for immediate comment.

News of Zirinsky’s potential plans is likely to add to a feeling of flux at CBS News. Kim Godwin, the unit’s executive vice president, has been set free of her current CBS contract and is expected to be named president of ABC News, according to people familiar with the matter. Disney and ABC News have declined to comment on whether Godwin is set to be named to the role previously held by James Goldston, who left the post in March. Godwin’s departure would spell the exit of one of the internal candidates seen as most likely to succeed Zirinsky. Another potential internal candidate could be Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, recently named Washington bureau chief for CBS News.

The heads of most of CBS News’ best known shows are either relatively new to the organization or tied closely to their own programs. The executive producers at “CBS Evening News” and “CBS This Morning” have joined CBS News as part of ongoing bid by Zirinsky to revamp her operations and narrow the gaps between her mainstay news programs — most notably  the evening and morning staples — and rivals at ABC and NBC. Meanwhile Bill Owens, Mary Hager and Rand Morrison, the leaders of “60 Minutes,” “Face the Nation” and “CBS Sunday Morning” are seen as intricately connected to those franchises.

Zirinsky took the reins of CBS News at a fraught time. The news division was grappling with accusations about its workplace culture in the wake of the 2017 exit of former “CBS This Morning” anchor Charlie Rose, as well as notable ratings dips at “Evening,” “Morning” and elsewhere. CBS News had scrambled anchor lineups at the evening and morning programs, as well as at “Face The Nation,” and audiences were not embracing them. Zirinsky quickly placed Norah O’Donnell at the “Evening” anchor desk, and revamped “Morning” around Gayle King, Tony Dokoupil and Anthony Mason. The shows remain in third place behind NBC and ABC, but in recent weeks have begun to narrow some of the audience gaps with competitors.

She brought a journalist’s sensibility to the role. People familiar with CBS News said Zirinsky, whose news acumen has long been admired, has been more open than most operating executives with her ideas about talent, production and more. She is also known for working long hours and has had a steady presence in CBS News’ Manhattan offices before the global pandemic forced big changes in how media companies work.

Her potential transition would mark the latest in a series at some of the media industry’s biggest newsrooms. ABC News has yet to acknowledge whether Godwin has been offered the job, but MSNBC earlier this year named Rashida Jones its new president. Jeff Zucker, president of WarnerMedia’s CNN, has indicated he intends to leave his job by the end of 2021.