After a year of sexual-harassment scandals brought down top male talent and executives, CBS decided it had enough and put one of its beloved and legendary female producers in charge.
Susan Zirinsky took over CBS News from President David Rhodes on Monday. Zirinsky has been at the network for four decades, helming programs including 48 Hours and the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, working in war zones and covering the White House. (She was the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s character Broadcast News.) Now she will be only the second woman to be appointed head of a broadcast news network.
One of Zirinsky’s major moves could be the appointment of a woman to another top post at the network, by tapping CBS This Morning host Norah O’Donnell to host the Evening News, according to sources. O’Donnell has in the past made her desire to host the Evening News job well known, they said. Her allies have gloated to tabloids about current host Jeff Glor’s ratings failures, and suggested that the network may have buyer’s remorse.
Some network insiders told The Daily Beast that those reports were overblown at the time, but now, CBS News staff familiar with her thinking said Zirinsky will examine the news network’s programming, including future talent decisions. Insiders say that O'Donnell could eventually take the top job if Glor’s ratings continue to sag.
Zirinsky’s appointment, which a top network source told The Daily Beast was only solidified in recent days, comes at a historically tough moment for the network and its news division, and could portend a significant shakeup.
In the past year, the network has experienced a top-down leadership reshuffle that has touched almost every part of the organization.
CBS’ longtime chief Les Moonves was ousted following a series of damning reports accusing him of sexual harassment. Those revelations came several months after Charlie Rose, one of the network’s biggest stars, was pushed out following similar revelations. 60 Minutes chief Jeff Fager, who also previously ran the network’s news operation, was also forced out in the wake of Rose’s departure. (All of them have previously denied allegations of sexual misconduct.)
Zirinsky steps into the role after current and former employees told The New Yorker that there was a culture of tolerating sexual harassment at CBS News, which is undergoing a review by an outside law firm.
As the tumult has roiled the organization, ratings for the network’s flagship news programs have sagged.
Between September 2017 and September 2018, CBS Evening News experienced a 9 percent ratings decline among 25-54-year-olds, the demographic most crucial to advertisers. That decline was almost double the ratings dips of rival evening news programs on NBC and ABC.
CBS This Morning also declined significantly compared to rivals Good Morning America and Today in the year since former Face the Nation host John Dickerson replaced Rose, and Face the Nation’s ratings dropped following Dickerson’s departure.
Rhodes was in danger of losing his job following his decision to axe former CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, a decision that infuriated Moonves. The ratings plunge and tumult in the wake of Rose’s departure spelled doom for Rhodes in the months leading up to his contract renewal.
Since being forced out, Fager has agitated from the sidelines speaking to trusted confidants at 60 Minutes about CBS News’ poor ratings under Rhodes, according to a network source. Fager once held Rhodes’ job and the pair were widely known to dislike each other, according to former and current staffers who have worked with both men.
Most immediately, Zirinsky will green-light successors for Fager and former CBS This Morning executive producer Ryan Kadro, who left the network late last year.
Her appointment may solve one problem for the network, which had grappled with who to put in charge of 60 Minutes, one of the most highly rated programs on television. (In a sign of the show’s importance, Zirinsky herself was being considered for the role). With her appointment to the top post, most network insiders believe 60 Minutes veteran Bill Owens will likely become the show’s executive producer.
She’ll also likely bring a different management style.
Most staffers who spoke to The Daily Beast said Zirinsky will almost certainly take a more hands-on role than Rhodes, who some employees occasionally noted was not a television producer and as such was not interested in the minutiae of producing. Zirinsky is known for her attention to detail and for sending emails to staff late at night and early in the morning.
Most of the staff received the news positively.
Following the announcement on Sunday, a number of current and former CBS News staffers shared well-wishes and positive memories of interactions with her. Even privately, a number of staffers said the mood was upbeat and employees hoped the appointment would boost morale after a scandal-plagued year.
“Everyone has spent the last year afraid of what’s next to drop,” one network insider said, describing the relief some staffers felt upon learning of Rhodes departure.
Following her appointment, Zirinsky acknowledged that the network had work to do.
“We have to do a top-down look,” Zirinsky said during an all-staff meeting Monday morning. “I know we’re not a patient bunch, but having the time to listen to you—what works, what doesn’t… your ideas matter.”