After Norah O’Donnell was named anchor of the “CBS Evening News” in May, she received a congratulatory email from Maureen Orth, the widow of Tim Russert, the late NBC Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” moderator.
“Tim would be so proud,” the note read. O’Donnell said it brought her to tears. It also reminded her of how Russert, her first boss in TV news, influenced her work ethic.
“Tim used to say to me every day, ‘What do you know?’ ‘’ O’Donnell, 45, recalled in an interview last week as she prepared for her new job at CBS News headquarters on Manhattan’s West Side. “And I would sit in the car and start calling people up on Capitol Hill before I walked into the bureau because I was afraid I would run into him and wouldn’t have a little scooplet for him. That always kind of stuck with me.”
On Monday, O’Donnell becomes part of broadcasting history by taking over the CBS program associated with legendary anchor Walter Cronkite. But she also is faced with the task of making a nightly half-hour newscast a regular appointment for viewers in an era when they are inundated with news throughout the day on their phones and on 24-hour cable channels.
The half-hour evening newscast is one of network TV’s longest-running formats — “CBS Evening News” launched in 1948. But the number of people watching has slowly declined over the years like the rest of network television. The three network newscasts still collectively averaged 23 million viewers a night in the 2018-19 TV season, compared to around 7 million that Fox News, CNN and MSNBC draw in prime time, according to Nielsen data.
The audience also is getting older: The three programs have 4.7 million viewers in the 25-to-54 age group that advertisers target when they buy commercials, down 5% from a year ago. According to data from Kantar Media, the three network evening newscasts took in $518 million in ad revenue in 2018, a 6% decline from 2017.
Mark Lukasiewicz, a former producer for NBC News and dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, said the even-handed approach of the network evening newscast is worth preserving even with its smaller audience.
“It’s one of the last repositories of carefully crafted, scripted broadcast reports that are concise, precise and still aim to be 100% factual,” Lukasiewicz said. “Opinions have become so much a part of the journalistic ecosystem now, it’s almost unusual to see reporters report facts dispassionately.”
O’Donnell believes her broadcast can be vital at a time when the most popular programs on cable news channels such as Fox News and MSNBC are hosted by political partisans. “If you want affirmation, you can turn on a cable channel,” she said. “If you want information, turn on the ‘CBS Evening News.’ People are craving a trusted, fact-based news source.”
Colleagues at CBS News and her former shop, NBC, believe O’Donnell is a hard-driving personality who will bring a competitive edge to the network’s evening news operation, which has been adrift for several years. “Norah is pretty fierce,” said one co-worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “She’s going to be aggressive and want to go after big interviews.”
O’Donnell is the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. Her parents raised her with a deep respect for news and journalists. Her father served as a doctor in the U.S. military and was deployed in the first Iraq war. World affairs could impact how long he could be away or where she and her three siblings would be living.
“My mom wouldn’t throw away the newspaper until she finished reading the entire thing, which means, with four kids, sometimes there was a giant stack of papers on the dining room table,” O’Donnell recalled. “The two traditions in my house on Sunday were church and ’60 Minutes.’”
O’Donnell’s high school friends remind her that she used to impersonate ABC News legend Barbara Walters when leaving phone messages.
After graduating from Georgetown, O’Donnell began her career writing for the Washington newspaper Roll Call before joining NBC News in 1999, where she covered Congress and the White House. She moved to CBS News in 2011 to become chief Washington correspondent and a year later was named co-host of “CBS This Morning.”
Along with competing against the proliferation of choices in the TV landscape, O’Donnell will have to overcome obstacles that have long faced “CBS Evening News” through a combination of bad luck and self-inflicted wounds by previous management regimes.
The program has been in third place for more than two decades and in the current TV season is averaging 6 million viewers a night behind “ABC World News Tonight With David Muir” (8.7 million) and “NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt” (8.1 million).
“CBS Evening News” has had trouble competing in the ratings race since the network lost several of its strongest affiliates to Fox after Rupert Murdoch’s network gained the broadcast rights to the NFL in the mid-1990s. The change resulted in the programs airing on stations with weaker local news lead-ins in major markets such as Atlanta, Dallas, Cleveland and Detroit, a disadvantage that shows up in the ratings decades later.
But CBS News also had trouble managing transitions in the anchor chair in recent years.
Cronkite’s successor, Dan Rather, was forced to leave the broadcast in 2005 over his disputed reporting on former President George W. Bush’s military service. Over the next 14 years, CBS has had five different anchors on the broadcast — including former ”Today” host Katie Couric, whose star power could not change its competitive standing.
The audience grew in the first couple of years of “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley’s tenure as anchor, which began in 2011. But Pelley clashed with former CBS News president David Rhodes over the program’s editorial direction and departed in mid-2017.
O’Donnell’s predecessor, Jeff Glor, was named to the job in December 2017, even though he did not have a high profile at CBS News. His arrival received scant promotional support. Many CBS News insiders — who tend to be a traditionalist bunch — believed his program tried too hard to imitate the fast-moving visual style of “ABC World News Tonight.”
Susan Zirinsky, who took over as president of CBS News from Rhodes in January, decided to revamp it with O’Donnell at the helm not long after taking her post.
“Norah is an incredibly fluid broadcaster,” Zirinsky said in an interview. “She has the ability to take multiple pieces of information and is able to synthesize them.”
Based on the rehearsals at the network’s studio last week, Zirinsky is aiming to bring more gravitas to the “CBS Evening News With Norah O’Donnell.” The theme music is slower and more orchestral-sounding. The flashy, rapid-fire video montage that opened the program is gone.
O’Donnell, looking fresh and camera-ready for a run-through just hours after undergoing a colonoscopy, went over the script and suggested ways to emphasize any original reporting CBS News correspondents brought to the stories.
Further changes are expected in the fall when the program moves to a newly built studio in Washington, D.C., where O’Donnell will live with her husband, chef and restaurateur Geoff Tracy, and their three children.
Zirinsky, a veteran producer who has been hands-on in the transformation of the program, wants “CBS Evening News” to have value for viewers who are exposed to information throughout the day.
“We want to focus on the stories where we can add something,” Zirinsky said. “Do I need to give you a story that you’ve heard all day and there isn’t anything new? No, I don’t. Everybody on this planet is getting their news on their phone. What I do hope is that the stories we bring you are sticky — that they stay with you.”
Zirinsky adds that she is looking to expand the exposure of “CBS Evening News,” which already reairs at 7 p.m. Pacific on the free streaming video news service CBSN. She said O’Donnell is ready to lead the program no matter how viewers watch it in the future.
But Zirinsky, who started her career at the network’s Washington bureau in the 1970s at the height of the Watergate scandal, said the storied history of the “CBS Evening News” is never far from her mind.
“We would want Walter Cronkite to call up and say, ‘That was a great show,’” she said. “There is a pressure for us to fulfill that legacy and I think we have the people to do it.”
‘CBS Evening News With Norah O’Donnell’
When: Weekdays 6:30 p.m.