CBS News announce two people will lead division — plus its owned stations group

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CBS News has announced that two execs, hired from outside the network, will take over the news division and the company’s owned stations.

Neeraj Khemlani, who comes from Hearst, and ABC staffer Wendy McMahon will jointly lead the newly reorganized division.

The pair will succeed Susan Zirinsky, a CBS News veteran who is stepping down as news division president after about two years. Her pending departure from the president’s office had been the subject of speculation for some time now, with reports heating up in the past few weeks before CBS made it official.

Zirinsky, who did not have oversight of the CBS owned stations, reportedly was looking to leave the role, and negotiated a production deal with the network’s parent, ViacomCBS, to produce content for CBS, CBSN and Paramount+.

The move, which was largely kept under wraps until CBS made its announcement, could be viewed as a way for the network to hedge its bets at a time of low ratings despite significant investments and a workplace with misconduct scandals squarely in the rear view mirror but still a concern. If one executive doesn’t work out, the other could step in.

Or the network could simply announce another reorganization to move the news division back under a single, completely new leader.

That said, in its announcement, the company suggested that the reorganized leadership structure will also allow closer collaboration between the network news division and the 15 CBS stations the network owns and operates in major markets (CBS owns a total of 29 stations, with some being CW or independent).

CBS has been launching localized versions of its national 24/7 streaming news product, CBSN, in these markets.

The new structure follows McMahon’s experience — at ABC she runs the owned stations group, many of which are powerhouses in their respective markets. She also worked for CBS owned stations WBZ in Boston and WCCO in Minneapolis.

Khemlani had been a producer on “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II” earlier in his career, so the network could be looking to draw on his experience working in management of signature broadcasts to boost ratings at “CBS Evening News” and “CBS This Morning,” in particular.

In addition to the sexual misconduct scandals and declining morale Zirinsky faced when taking over, she also faced an uphill battle to get viewers.

“Evening News” and “CTM” had been trailing in the ratings for years, and Zirinsky moved quickly to replace Jeff Glor with Norah O’Donnell as anchor on “Evening.” O’Donnell had been co-anchor of “This Morning” but reportedly did not get along with Gayle King, who is often viewed as the de facto primary anchor of the broadcast after a major contract renegotiation.

Glor was moved to the Saturday morning counterpart of “CTM” while current weekday co-anchor John Dickerson was shuffled off to “60 Minutes” and replaced with Anthony Mason and Tony Dokupil.

The network also made the decision to move “Evening” to Washington, D.C. to be closer to the center of U.S. government but also helping to accommodate O’Donnell, who lives in the city and had been commuting to NYC for “This Morning” for years.

Despite a splashy new set and heavy promotion, “CBS Evening News” remains in last place in the ratings, as does “This Morning.”

Meanwhile, ABC News, announced April 14, 2021, that it had picked Kim Godwin, a Zirinsky lieutenant who also happened to be one of her biggest detractors, to take over its news division, making her the first Black woman to run a broadcast network news division.

CBS News has also attempted to carve out a niche by being more focused on “hard news” dating back prior to Zirinsky’s days — “CTM” doesn’t do cooking segments or national weather on a daily basis — while the network has also emphasized its investigative and other reporting with the tagline “Original Reporting.”