The recent procession of top news executives shifting positions at ABC News, MSNBC and CBS News gives many in the close-knit world of TV journalism cause for hand-wringing.
In recent months, NBCUniversal named a new executive, Cesar Conde, to head all its news operations, replacing Andy Lack. Conde in turn named a new president at MSNBC, Rashida Jones. Disney on Wednesday named Kim Godwin, a former executive vice president at CBS News, as the new president of ABC News, replacing outgoing executive James Goldston. More transition is coming to CBS News, where current topper Susan Zirinsky is also seen giving up her duties there in days to come.
That’s one long cavalcade. And it hasn’t necessarily reached its end: Jeff Zucker, president of WarnerMedia’s CNN, has indicated he wants to move on by the end of 2021.
There’s reason for the revolving door in the top news suite. The near-constant shuffling of news leaders in some of TV’s most prominent newsrooms has less to do with the old process of gathering facts and is tied instead to the spate of senior management changes within the ranks of executives who run the largest media conglomerates.
At CBS, George Cheeks has ultimate responsibility for CBS News after its parent merged with Viacom at the end of 2019. People familiar with the matter say he has been working for months to devise new management for CBS News. At NBCU, Conde has wasted no time putting his stamp across a group that includes NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC. Peter Rice, the former Fox executive, has new oversight of ABC News in his capacity as Disney’s top TV content executive. And WarnerMedia’s CEO Jason Kilar is the ultimate overseer of CNN, no matter how much Zucker drives its operations day in and day out. Only Fox Corp. has recently renewed the contract of its senior news executive, Suzanne Scott (Noah Oppenheim, NBC News’ president, signed a new deal in 2019).
In a different era, CEOs wanted little to do with the newsroom. These are messy places, filled with journalists who are dedicated to chasing stories while managing the public halo illuminated by their regular presence on screen. The news division is often a magnet for unwanted publicity. It draws the ire of advocacy organizations; politicians; and a whole section of the media devoted to covering itself.
But newsrooms are getting more attention from corporate. Amid the industry’s streaming wars, more viewers are prone to watch their favorite dramas and comedies at times of their own choosing. So news and sports remain the media industry’s best bet to attract the big, live crowds that advertisers and distributors crave. Little wonder that the primetime grid remains filled with special reports, town halls, and so-called “insta-docs” tied to the big story in the news cycle well after the 2020 election.
Executives charged with managing the people who manage the news do so in a tough moment. Ratings, which boomed in many places during the run-up to the 2020 election and the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, are ebbing. Evening news viewership, which reversed years of declining viewership as Americans hunkered down at home, is coming back down to earth. As all of this happens, there are new calls to stock the digital ether with a spate of new on-demand programs and live-streaming efforts for the broadband crowd.
The newsroom transitions are becoming messy. Word of Disney’s choice leaked days before the company was ready to acknowledge it. Staffers at CBS News are working knowing that the unit’s two top executives are departing. In years past, a company like ABC News had already identified a successor when the time came for executives like David Westin or Ben Sherwood to leave. Meanwhile, CNN can expect the Zucker situation to spur reams of guesswork as 2022 draws closer (there are many people in the industry who think the CNN chief may end up staying).
For all the drama in TV newsrooms as of late, the executives being picked to take over do not hail from left field. CBS News’ Godwin has a long history of managing large newsrooms. She is the first Black executive to oversee a broadcast network news operation. Executives surfacing in recent speculation about CBS News successors include Alex Wallace, head of media and content at Verizon Media, and a former senior vice president at NBC News who supervised “Today” and “NBC Nightly News.” CBS News has declined to comment on any search process or Zirinsky’s potential departure.
News executives have plenty of options these days. They can produce for an ever-widening array of players in the content game, or try their hand at upstart ventures that run the gamut from Graydon Carter’s Air Mail to outlets like Vice or Vox. That means a never-ending stream of candidates who can help a media executive shake up a news division at any moment. The parade of executives moving to and fro is likely to continue.