Norah O’Donnell has been a political junkie since she covered Congress for the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call. But now that she’s been named co-host of CBS This Morning, O’Donnell tells me she is relishing “an opportunity to do lots of different things,” including taking on “cultural issues” and “breaking news. I hope to build on my political reporting.”
The announcement Thursday that O’Donnell will team with Charlie Rose and Gayle King on the morning show caps a remarkable rise for the 38-year-old correspondent. It also represents a reshuffling of the CBS program just seven months after it was relaunched as a hard-news alternative to Today and Good Morning America.
Jeff Fager, the CBS News chairman, says that while O’Donnell is “a real presence” on television, “she’s a first-class reporter as well. She’s so good at interviews—that’s what separates her from the pack.”
Adds David Rhodes, the news division president: “It’s a misnomer that if you’re sitting at the table you’re not doing good journalism.”
O’Donnell replaces Erica Hill, a onetime CNN anchor who was a holdover from the old Early Show before Rose and King signed on. CBS is discussing a new assignment for Hill.
The CBS executives denied that the anchor swap represents a midcourse correction for the show. “We’ve been in third place for about the last 250 years,” Rhodes says. “If you look at the broadcast in recent weeks, it’s going in the right direction, numbers-wise.”
When O’Donnell starts after the political conventions, she will be up against Savannah Guthrie, who recently became Matt Lauer’s co-host following the debacle in which NBC forced out Ann Curry after one year. At about the same time, Robin Roberts will take a leave from GMA for a bone-marrow transplant as she battles MDS, a blood- and bone-marrow disease.
O’Donnell, a San Antonio native, was a proverbial rising star at MSNBC, where she was chief Washington correspondent, covered the White House for NBC, and was a steady presence on such programs as Today and NBC Nightly News. It was just over a year ago that she made the jump to CBS, giving up the cable grind for the White House correspondent’s job and a role as Bob Schieffer’s chief substitute on Face the Nation.
The hours don’t scare her. “As a mom, I’m a natural morning person,” O’Donnell says. “I’m usually in bed by 9:30.”
Her life is a perpetual juggling act. She has 5-year-old twins and a 4-year old, and will commute to New York for a while before moving her family. Then her husband, Geoff Tracy—they wrote a baby cookbook together—will commute to Washington, where he runs Chef Geoff and other high-profile restaurants.
O’Donnell got a baptism of fire last week while filling in on the morning show. She remained on the air for five straight hours after the movie-theater massacre in Colorado.
While CBS This Morning has drawn positive attention for playing down tabloid and celebrity stories, it has not been boffo at the box office. For the week of July 16, GMA finished first with 4.59 million viewers, longtime ratings champ Today had 4.2 million, and the CBS program averaged 2.3 million. But the brass always knew it would be an uphill climb after so many past versions—with anchors ranging from Harry Smith to Maggie Rodriguez to Julie Chen to Chris Wragge to Bryant Gumbel—failed to get traction.
“We’re really proud of where this broadcast is right now,” Fager says.
While O’Donnell’s Beltway experience undoubtedly will be a plus, the morning hours are unique in that viewers want to feel a personal connection with those delivering the news—hence the attempt to create a “family” atmosphere on shows such as Today. O’Donnell’s chemistry with her co-host will count as much as her knowledge of Senate procedures.
“I’ve long admired Charlie,” she says. “We seem to work very well together.”