CBS News President Susan Zirinsky unveiled sweeping on-air talent changes to the network’s evening newscast and morning show in her first steps toward rebuilding a division rocked by scandal and corporate neglect.
As part of the changes announced Monday, Norah O’Donnell will exit her role as co-host of “CBS This Morning” to become the new anchor of “CBS Evening News,” replacing Jeff Glor. Starting this fall, the program will originate full time from Washington for the first time in its 71-year history. She will also be a contributor to “60 Minutes.”
O’Donnell’s co-host John Dickerson will also leave the morning program to become a correspondent for the newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” He will also contribute to the network’s political coverage.
Gayle King becomes the senior member of “CBS This Morning,” which will have two new co-hosts starting May 20: CBS News veteran Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil, who joined the division as a correspondent in 2016 and has never hosted a daily program.
The personnel shifts have been percolating for months since Zirinsky, a 46-year veteran of CBS News, was named president of the division in January. The shake-up will be her first major test as a decision maker.
Both of the network’s morning and evening programs are profitable, but they have fallen further behind in the ratings against their competition on ABC and NBC in recent years.
“CBS This Morning” had five straight years of ratings growth with Charlie Rose, King and O’Donnell as co-hosts. But viewers have been leaving since Rose was fired over sexual harassment allegations in November 2017. In recent weeks the program has trailed NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” by about 800,000 viewers.
The challenges for CBS come at a time when broadcast news audiences continue to erode across the board as political news junkies spend more time with cable channels. Younger viewers are increasingly turning to online sources for their news.
O’Donnell, 45, will be the sixth anchor to take over “CBS Evening News” since Dan Rather finished his 24-year run in 2005. She will also become the third solo female anchor of an evening newscast, following ABC’s Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, who had the job at CBS from 2006 to 2011.
Glor, who took the job in December 2017, was informed Friday that he was being removed from the broadcast. He has several years remaining on his contract at the network, but his role is still to be determined. Mosheh Oinounou, executive producer of “CBS Evening News,” is also leaving the program.
CBS News is hoping that having a Washington-based broadcast during a hotly contested presidential election cycle will distinguish it from “ABC World News Tonight With David Muir” and “NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt.”
Zirinsky told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Monday that Washington is “ground zero” for the heated political climate in the country as it heads into the 2020 presidential campaign, making the time right for an evening newscast based there. She added that O’Donnell is suited for the anchor role because she has experience covering the White House, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and several presidential campaigns.
“Norah brings an edge to being able to open doors and confront the powerful,” Zirinsky said. “What’s the best way to cover a story? Get as close to you can to it.”
O’Donnell said she found it “incredibly humbling” to be taking the job once held by CBS News legend Walter Cronkite.
“We have the old Cronkite map in our ‘CBS This Morning’ studio,” she said. “He was the most trusted man in America. People tune to us not for affirmation but for information.”
CBS News recently rebuilt its longtime bureau on M Street in Washington with a new state-of-the-art studio that can accommodate the evening newscast.
Zirinsky celebrated O’Donnell’s announcement at CBS News headquarters in New York by presenting her with the manual typewriter. Zirinsky used the machine when she started out in the network’s Washington bureau in the early 1970s.
Zirinsky also invited former “CBS Evening News” anchors and division veterans Bob Schieffer and Scott Pelley to be on hand for the announcement — intended to be a reminder to the troops that she cares about the division’s storied legacy.
The network will be looking to her to close the ratings gap with rivals.
“CBS Evening News” has averaged 6 million viewers in the 2018-19 TV season, compared with 8.9 million for ABC and 8.4 million for NBC, according to Nielsen data.
The program suffered over the last year as Glor was not as familiar to viewers as his predecessor Pelley, who had regular prime-time exposure as a correspondent on “60 Minutes.” Glor was named to the job without having been a regular substitute on the newscast, typically a way for networks to groom a successor for the anchor chair. Both Holt and Muir served as primary substitute anchors before getting their jobs.
The network — which has been distracted by the sexual harassment scandals that drove former CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves and former “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager out of the company — also never put any promotional muscle behind Glor’s arrival to the job.
The last time “CBS Evening News” showed any audience growth was after Pelley took over the program from Couric in 2011. He was ousted after a dispute with Zirinsky’s predecessor David Rhodes but remains with “60 Minutes.”
A major obstacle for “CBS Evening News” has been the weak ratings performance of its owned TV stations. The audience lead-ins from local news programs to “CBS Evening News” run well behind ABC and NBC in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas and Detroit.
Although the evening news is still a flagship broadcast for network news operations, morning shows are the largest revenue and profit drivers. It’s the reason Zirinsky has locked down King to a new deal. King is said to have doubled her salary to $11 million a year. ABC News and CNN expressed interest in her services, which helped drive up her price.
The salary is among the highest ever paid to a CBS News on-air person, topped only by Couric who earned $15 million a year as “CBS Evening News” anchor. King’s deal is a sign of CBS Corp.’s willingness to invest in the news division after years of budget cutting.
Even as “CBS This Morning” ratings have declined, King has emerged as a visible star for the network, thanks in part to recent high-profile interviews with embattled R&B star R. Kelly and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.
“Gayle has exploded over the last several years as unique talent that people trust,” Zirinsky said. “They want to speak to her about important topics.”
King, 64, will be paired with two male co-hosts, a departure from the formula for morning programs, for which women make up more than half of the audience.
Mason, 62, has been a versatile utility player at the network, which he joined in 1986. He filled in for Rose when he had heart surgery in early 2017 and was interim anchor of “CBS Evening News” after Pelley left the job in the spring of that year.
Mason has been co-host of the Saturday edition of “CBS This Morning” and a longtime regular contributor of culture stories for “CBS This Morning.” He has also served as a correspondent covering foreign affairs and business.