R. Kelly's explosive interview on CBS This Morning didn't just bring headlines for him.
Thanks to her composure in the face of Kelly's volcanic, threatening anger, co-anchor Gayle King is having nothing short of an iconic moment—the pinnacle of a sustained sequence of triumphs that has cemented her transformation from journeyman television personality into irreplaceable network star.
It comes at an especially opportune interval for King, a co-anchor of CBS' morning show for the past six years. Her contract is up at year’s end, and the brand new president of CBS News, Susan Zirinsky, is said to be laser-focused on keeping her in the fold.
Having survived, along with Norah O’Donnell, the scandalous November 2017 departure of their co-anchor Charlie Rose over sexual misconduct allegations—a damaging episode from which the show has yet to recover—King has begun preliminary negotiations for a substantial raise to her reported $5.5 million salary along with an expanded role at CBS News.
According to a Page Six story published late Wednesday, a source said King wants “George Stephanopoulos money” to stay with CBS. “Gayle is holding the show together, she wants George money—he got between $15 and $18 million to stay on at ABC.”
As Stephanopoulos has at ABC, where he migrates between roles at GMA and This Week, King's new arrangement at CBS could also include a coveted berth on the network’s marquee news magazine, 60 Minutes.
King's camp has pushed hard for a better deal with the network. In addition to seeking a larger salary, CBS could also offer King better integration into the broader CBS programming.
While King attempts to negotiate a new contract with the network, her own representation is in flux.
King's former agent, Darnell Strom, recently left CAA for rival talent agency UTA, leading to speculation that King might follow suit. While King remains with CAA for the moment, her lawyer Larry Shire has been the primary negotiator for King's contract, which is up in November.
A lucrative new deal would be long-awaited recompense for a 64-year-old working mom who spent decades toiling in the wilderness of local TV (where she met her best friend Oprah Winfrey when both were starting out at a station in Baltimore) and only relatively recently has come into her own as an indispensable franchise player when many such careers are heading into the sunset.
“Gayle is the most important talent at CBS News, both internally for morale and externally, hands down,” a longtime colleague told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, as King’s eye-popping exclusive interview with alleged sexual abuser Kelly, the just-indicted pop star accused of having sex with underage girls, was dominating coverage on broadcast and cable television.
Indeed, King’s blockbuster scoop—in which the possibly criminal pop star cursed, screamed, cried and jumped out of his chair to shake his fists and loom threateningly over her as cameras rolled—led Tuesday’s broadcast of the CBS Evening News, this during a busy day otherwise marked by more traditional news fare such as Washington machinations and Trump revelations.
King’s 80-minute-long sit-down with the troubled accused sex offender—a portion of which led Wednesday’s installment of CBS This Morning—will also be featured as a primetime news special scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Friday.
“She’s the most important on-air person in the CBS News division—end of sentence,” King’s colleague argued. “There isn’t even a close second.”
Re-signing King would also free up CBS News to make other talent changes.
Fellow CBS This Morning host Norah O’Donnell has been mentioned frequently as a potential replacement for CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor, and The Daily Beast also learned that CBS executives have in recent months discussed adding several other high profile stars to 60 Minutes, including current CBS This Morning host John Dickerson.
The R. Kelly interview caps an impressive run of exclusives that King has brought to her network—notably her dual interviews last week with two of Michael Jackson’s pedophilia accusers, as well as several of the late pop star’s brothers and a nephew who were attempting to defend him in the run-up to the disturbing HBO documentary series Leaving Neverland.
The previous week, King snagged a headline-making exclusive with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in the midst of his potentially career-ending political scandal involving photos in blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes on Northam’s medical school yearbook page.
The scoops arrived, coincidentally enough, as The Hollywood Reporter published a story speculating on King’s professional future, headlined “Will Gayle King Stay at CBS News?”
The piece quoted King as sounding intriguingly coy about the answer to whether King would still be at CBS News this time next year. “Oooh, that’s a good question. All I can say is I really love my job. And I think it’s kind of foolish to predict the future.”
“That’s Contract Negotiation 101,” remarked network news veteran Shelley Ross, who briefly executive-produced CBS’s morning program more than a decade ago after five years running ABC’s Good Morning America. “Everything you’re seeing is about about a negotiation, including CBS leading their evening newscast with R. Kelly. While it’s unusual to lead a CBS newscast with R. Kelly, I think management did that in part to show that they appreciate and support the exclusives that Gayle King brings to the network.”
During her dramatic encounter with R. Kelly, King was unflappable, calmly asking pointed questions and not letting him off the hook.
“She was masterful,” Ross said. When her interview subject erupted in a seemingly uncontrolled tantrum, “She just sat there being incredibly professional and she wasn’t buying into how upset he was,” Ross said.
King’s admirers at CBS on Wednesday described King as an impressively well-prepared and warmly collegial coworker, who eschews diva-like behavior and takes personal interest in the staff and crew.
She is also obsessively hard-working, colleagues said, often leaving CBS News headquarters on West 57th to stroll the few blocks over to Hearst Magazines, where she is an editor at large at O magazine and Oprah’s ex officio representative.
“Gayle is one of those great talents hiding in plain sight—it takes a lot of people a long time to appreciate a black woman who is the less famous friend,” said a colleague from Hearst. “She’s an extraordinary character. She works like a fiend. She’s never not working. She doesn’t drink. And it seems she doesn’t sleep.”