Dylan Byers: The CBS News Blues

From a story on puck.news by Dylan Byers headlined “The CBS News Blues”:

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.

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