Staffers hold their breath as ‘epic’ changes come to CBS News

The new president of CBS News, Susan Zirinsky, is about to try something radical.

“She’s restructuring pretty much of all of the news division’s talent across the board,” a CBS staffer said. “It’s really pretty epic.”

At this point it’s the worst kept secret in TV, even though none of it has been officially announced yet. Multiple sources confirmed to CNN Business that Zirinsky is revamping the CBS morning show with Gayle King at the center, with the intention of moving King’s co-anchor Norah O’Donnell to the evening news.

Four other anchors are expecting to take on new assignments. Some of them aren’t quite sure what they’ll be doing yet.

Zirinsky’s aim is to announce the talent shuffle all at once. But because the plans have leaked out, the news division is holding its breath. And TV news veterans are watching it all with a mixture of awe and skepticism.

The overarching goal: To pull CBS News out of a dispiriting period in its history and reinvigorate the network’s flagship newscasts.

The chances it will work: Anyone’s guess.

Zirinsky declined to comment for this story. She is likely to announce the changes next week, ahead of the CBS Corporation’s annual event for advertisers in mid-May, two of the sources said.

In a reflection of the uncertainty that’s gripping the newsroom, some of the anchors don’t yet know what their new start dates are.

Zirinsky’s detractors say the drip-drip-drip of stories about the shakeup is hurting morale.

But the detractors appear to be outnumbered by her supporters, who say she inherited a broken news division at the start of this year, and that she’s working overtime to repair it.

“I think her intention is pretty clear: She’s trying to put people back in the places that suit them best,” one of the staffers said.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about their employer.

The current drama dates back to late 2017, when one of the founding co-anchors of “CBS This Morning,” Charlie Rose, was fired.

Two weeks later, in an unrelated move, Jeff Glor took over as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News.”

So both the morning and evening shows were in a state of transition — and the ratings, already in third place behind NBC and ABC, were accordingly shaky.

After several years of solid growth, the morning show slipped after Rose’s sudden exit — in stark contrast to NBC’s “Today” show, which kept humming along after Matt Lauer was fired.

CBS News president David Rhodes added two new anchors: He moved political journalist John Dickerson off “Face the Nation” and onto the morning show, effectively replacing Rose. And he promoted correspondent Bianna Golodryga as a fourth co-anchor.

Was the table too crowded? Did the cast work well together? Was Dickerson the right fit in the morning? Executives at CBS and their rivals at other networks debated these questions while the morning show’s producers worried about the weak ratings.

King, meanwhile, hinted that she might want to leave the morning show — a move that would have been a further blow to the ratings.

Sexual misconduct investigations shook CBS to its core in 2018 — leading to the departure of CEO Les Moonves, “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager and others.

Rhodes — who was never accused of any wrongdoing, and tried to keep the ship steady through it all — headed for the exit in January. When Zirinsky, the longtime head of the “48 Hours” newsmagazine, was promoted to president, the newsroom cheered. Zirinsky is beloved inside CBS News.

But the past few months have been a serious test. She has appointed Bill Owens as Fager’s successor at “60 Minutes.” She has moved to renew King’s contract and make other changes to revive the morning show. Gossip columns and trade publications have, as they always do, kept close track of it all, leaving staffers feeling like they’re in a whirlwind.

Her first change at the morning show was awkward. Golodryga left one day and never came back — a consequence of Zirinsky’s decision to move her off the A.M. shift and offer her another position at the news division. Golodryga declined what would have been a clear demotion, and she left the news division abruptly. (Golodryga remains a contributor to CNN.)

Golodryga’s exit was a prelude to other shakeups in the morning. Zirinsky promoted Diana Miller to be executive producer, filling a position that had been vacant since December.

And King is sticking around — that’s the one thing that’s known for sure. King’s best friend Oprah Winfrey even talked about it publicly in a recent interview. King has been on a roll, bookings wise, landing interviews with R. Kelly and other newsmakers. Zirinsky plans to further build “CBS This Morning” around King and her strengths.

That means moving O’Donnell to the evening shift — something she has been seeking for some time, sources said. O’Donnell has not commented publicly.

Zirinsky intends to replace Glor with O’Donnell and relocate the “Evening News” to Washington, D.C., where O’Donnell’s family is based. This will entail producing changes and other behind the scenes shifts. And as a result, people working on “Evening News” are on edge.

A Page Six story on Thursday, headlined “Gayle King pushes out Norah O’Donnell,” heightened the tensions. Zirinsky responded by issuing a statement saying “this headline is offensive and 100 percent false.” But she had no comment on the expected anchor changes the story detailed.

At Thursday’s daily 2:30 planning meeting, Glor acknowledged that the staff has been working under “extraordinary circumstances,” with constant leaks about the possible changes.

He thanked them and expressed gratitude, according to a person in the room.

Glor expects to be pushed off the newscast, but hasn’t been told anything definite, according to two sources.

Glor’s agent Olivia Metzger told CNN Business Thursday evening, “Jeff has remained focused on making sure the ‘Evening News’ team stays unified and on elevating the reporting and sharing of the most important and meaningful news events and stories both here and across the world, in the great tradition of CBS News.”

“Anyone who knows Jeff knows he is the type of leader and person whose primary concern has been and continues to be the well being of his colleagues. He will continue to represent and treat everyone around him with the highest level of respect, as he always has,” she added.

As for O’Donnell, she is under contract at the morning show through 2020, and she does not have a deal for the evening show, according to a source close to her.

She’ll be back on “CBS This Morning” on Friday.

In the coming weeks, viewers will see the revamp. Dickerson is likely to be moved to a new reporting role at “60 Minutes.” Weekend anchor Anthony Mason and correspondent Tony Dokoupil will join King on “CBS This Morning,” three of the sources said.

But when? That’s unclear. It has caused some people inside the network to complain about the state of uncertainty.

“We’re in limbo until management figures out what it wants to do next,” one frustrated staffer said.

But one of Zirinsky’s supporters pointed out that these changes would normally take longer. “She’s trying to turn an aircraft carrier in like five minutes.”