The CBS News Blues

Norah O'Donnell
Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage
Dylan Byers
January 26, 2022

Norah O’Donnell’s future at the helm of the CBS Evening News has been the subject of much in-crowd media gossip and intrigue for some time now. This industry is always fascinated by talent moves, speculation about who’s in and who’s out and who’s next, no matter how relatively small the stakes. And in this case, part of the fascination, surely, is the sexism inherent in television news—an industry where anchor chairs have so often been held by men. Another part of it, though, has to do with the office politics inside CBS News. 

O’Donnell’s old boss, Susan Zirinksy, stepped down from her role as the head of CBS News back in April. Zirinsky was the executive who selected O’Donnell to take over the diminished throne once inhabited by the legendary Walter Cronkite. She’d also greenlit the decision to move the show to D.C., a gesture that made sense in the Trump era when Washington was the world’s stage, but has since seemed out of step. During O’Donnell’s tenure, the Evening News has remained in third place, though for the first time in nearly three decades it has at least come within spitting distance of the competition. 

But even that didn’t seem like enough. Earlier this week, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that Brian Williams, the legendary newsman, had turned down overtures from CBS to take over O’Donnell’s role. In many ways, the flirtation itself seemed like both a fool’s errand and a horrific example of media executive gamesmanship. Back in September, if you’ll recall, I noted that Williams would never take the job, a point I re-reported in November. Williams didn’t want to handle the corrosive nightly grind of TV news, and he presumably wouldn’t want to grind away on a third place show. One also imagines that, given his own decency and the graceful way that he recovered from his own career scandal, he wouldn’t risk his reputation by launching a third career act by defenestrating the only female nightly news anchor. 

Neeraj Khemlani, the recently installed co-president of CBS News, seemed less bothered by the pitfalls of such a potential switcheroo. For the last several months, and as recently as this month, Khemlani has been imploring Williams to join CBS News, either as anchor of the Evening News or in some other preeminent role, sources familiar with the matter told me. Khemlani’s hope, it seems, was that Williams’ presence on the air and in the newsroom might help conjure up the ghost of CBS News past, when Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” 

But Khemlani’s quixotic quest also suggests the naivete of a person who has spent the last 15 years working in digital media, has never run a television news channel, and doesn’t yet quite grasp the complexities of managing multi-millionaire star talent. Indeed, pitching one star talent on a job that is already occupied by another star talent is an invitation for agents and advisors to sharpen their knives and start working the tabloids. And when the knives come out in TV news, shows and entire networks can quickly destabilize. Khemlani’s entreaties to Williams have left O’Donnell and those in her orbit wondering what she ever did to earn such disrespect. 

Khemlani’s flaccid responses to the crisis have only made things worse, too. When the New York Post reported in October that O’Donnell was in danger of losing her anchor spot, Khemlani praised her reporting but didn’t flatly deny the Post‘s thesis—a non-denial denial that kept the candle flickering. When Deadline asked again this week if O’Donnell would remain in the Evening News chair, Khemlani swallowed his robot pills and said only, “We have no current plans to change what we are doing. We’re leaning into our strength.” And when CNN first reported this week on Khemlani’s attempts to woo Williams, Khemlani didn’t comment at all, though “a CBS News exec” said “Brian Williams is not going to be doing the Evening News”—which, again, everyone except perhaps Khemlani already knew.

At last, CBS News seems ready to be a little more forthcoming in its support of O’Donnell. “There have not been any conversations with Brian Williams about the Evening News,” a CBS News spokesperson told me. “The Evening News with Norah O’Donnell is in its most competitive position in years and we’re proud of Norah and the program.” 

The first part of that statement is accurate insofar as Khemlani’s repeated appeals to Williams never turned into a serious negotiation about the program. The second part of the statement is probably as robust an expression of support as O’Donnell can hope for, given that her agents and the network are still in negotiations over the renewal of her contract. O’Donnell just launched a new show on CBS’ rebranded streaming network, and despite the appeals to Williams, I won’t be at all surprised if she ends up staying on board. In fact, the Williams imbroglio offers her team a chance to negotiate harder. And they’ve certainly made the job less appealing to an outsider. 

Who could replace her, and where else would she go? Never rule out CNN+, I guess, but sources on both sides of that equation have assured me that no such talks are happening.

Amid this drama, I find myself returning to a larger question that has preoccupied me for nearly a year, ever since I wrote a piece about the irreversible decline of broadcast news: What is the future of CBS News? What is going to become of this storied American brand—the home of Cronkite, and Edward R. Murrow—that is now a shadow of its former self, stuck in third place and struggling for relevance in an increasingly irrelevant industry?

The answer depends, of course, on when Shari Redstone sells ViacomCBS and who decides to buy it. Nearly every media executive I talk to presumes that Redstone will sell the business at some point this decade, for all the obvious reasons: namely, that the combined entity lags its super-scaled competitors in size, and because Redstone stands to profit handsomely from it. The very short list of plausible buyers includes Comcast and Warner Bros. Discovery, and almost certainly excludes all the new streamers—Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+—which have no desire to take on linear assets, including news. 

If Brian Roberts ever brought ViacomCBS to Comcast/NBCUniversal, CBS Broadcast (including CBS News) would have to be spun off and sold to someone else because Comcast can’t own two broadcast networks, per FCC regulations. If David Zaslav brings it to Warner Bros. Discovery, CBS News could be merged with CNN, which would expand CNN’s local news-gathering operations and possibly help it claim the status of the nation’s most serious news organization. I’m not sure Zaslav has any desire to invest in declining assets, but adding the CBS brand, “60 Minutes” and all those local news stations could help expand CNN’s streaming fortunes, especially under the leadership of Jeff Zucker.

Until it comes time to sell, Redstone will do whatever she can to maximize shareholder value and set the company up as an attractive acquisition target. In terms of the news division, that means figuring out how to spend less money and make more money. In recent weeks, ViacomCBS has enlisted FTI Consulting, the advisory firm, to conduct a strategic review of its news business, two sources familiar with the matter tell me. FTI’s mandate is to “build a tech stack to facilitate collaboration across the organization,” which in layman’s terms means coming up with ways to more efficiently produce, edit and distribute content across the network and local stations. “Greater efficiencies” might include figuring out how local teams can serve the national network, and vice versa—which was part of the thesis behind CBS executive George Cheeks’ decision to split Khemlani’s role as president with Wendy McMahon, who oversees local stations, and to unite local and digital operations. It might also include finding ways to reduce headcount.

That doesn’t mean Redstone won’t continue to invest in CBS News. The news division has made a slew of leadership and talent announcements in recent weeks—including the hiring of Robert Costa as chief election and campaign correspondent—and has just revamped its streaming service with new shows hosted by its most notable network talents, including O’Donnell and Gayle King. News is also a key pillar of ViacomCBS’ two streaming services, Paramount Plus and Pluto, and part of what differentiates ViacomCBS against the competition. But part of CBS News’ appeal to a prospective buyer will be its ability to keep costs down, and that is something Khemlani has been tasked with doing.

Which makes you wonder how much of a budget he’d have left if he’d actually succeeded in hiring Brian Williams. But, of course, he doesn’t have to worry about that, because, as he must certainly know by now, Brian Williams is not going to join CBS News.