The move by CBS to combine CBS News and its owned station group surprised nearly everyone, as did the promotion of two executives from outside the company, Neeraj Khemlani and Wendy McMahon, to share the president role atop the new division. George Cheeks, president and CEO of CBS Entertainment Group, called the initiative “an opportunity to create a news and information structure that positions CBS for the future,” and some believe the offbeat maneuver may just do that.
“Kudos to George Cheeks for thinking outside the box,” said Jonathan Klein, who spent 16 years at CBS News and was president of CNN U.S. “That’s very necessary in broadcast news as revenues and profits plummet.”
Combining network and local news could be a cost-cutting measure. It could also see station personnel cover more local stories for the network, said Andrew Heyward, former CBS News president, freeing up network reporters to chase down more enterprising stuff. “It’s a very interesting move--I think it’s intriguing,” said Heyward, research professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Fresh perspective is welcome.”
The new division holds CBS News, CBSN and 28 owned stations, including WCBS New York, KCBS Los Angeles and WBBM Chicago. Khemlani and McMahon start in early May. They await a “huge challenge,” Klein said, in getting network and local news denizens on the same page. “Do not underestimate the intense resistance of both organizations,” said Klein, chairman of TAPP Media.
Susan Zirinsky, 69, will continue as CBS News president until the new execs move in. She started as president in January 2019. Heyward called her “the right person at a very tough time for CBS News,” as key executives, including chairman/CEO Leslie Moonves and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, departed amidst accusations of inappropriate conduct. A longtime producer, Zirinsky is in discussions with corporate about “a significant role within CBS News, the network said.
Peter Dunn departed the CBS station group presidency and David Friend the group’s senior VP of news post amidst an investigation into hostile workplaces.
Back to CBS
Khemlani and McMahon have both spent time at CBS. Khemlani was most recently executive VP and deputy group head at Hearst Newspapers, and was a producer on 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II from 1998 to 2006.
“Neeraj studied investigative journalism with the best producers in the business. He put the years in,” said Ira Rosen, who spent close to 25 years as a producer at 60 Minutes. “He was doing international investigations that were really significant and really hard.”
Rosen called Khemlani “a grinder.”
“He gained the respect of everyone who ever worked for him,” he added.
Khemlani’s promotion to president was nonetheless “a complete surprise” for Rosen. Other candidates may have a knack for noisy self promotion. Khemlani, he said, not so much.
McMahon was senior VP of digital at ABC Owned Television Stations before becoming president of the group in December 2017. Before that, she was VP of marketing at KABC Los Angeles and had been creative services director at CBS-owned WBZ Boston and WCCO Minneapolis.
ABC’s owned stations have shown considerable innovation, including digital brand Localish and groupwide docuseries Our America, while retaining their strong positions in their local markets. The group was B+C’s Station Group of the Year in 2020. “Wendy has done a great job at the stations,” said one news insider. “She’s given her general managers and news directors the freedom to innovate.”
Khemlani will work out of New York and McMahon out of Los Angeles, with frequent trips to New York.
The pair has their work cut out for them. 60 Minutes remains a power, but CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News are both stuck in third place. CBS’s owned stations are playing catch-up with ABC’s, a mission made more difficult amidst the workplace culture issues being investigated.
National Versus Local
Meshing national and local news, each with a unique style of storytelling, will be tricky. Network news is well known for “big-footing”--flying in reporters to tackle a story instead of leaning on a reporter from an owned station or affiliate based in the market.
Heyward noted that network and local news do not collaborate as much as one might think, or as much as they used to. CBS’s move will likely change that. “It’s a very logical area to collaborate, and there has been less of it,” said Heyward. “This is an opportunity to do more.”
That frees up network news to chase down the big, ambitious stories that win awards, and viewers. “More story development, more enterprise,” said Heyward.
All eyes are on CBS as it enters into this tricky shift. “Neeraj and Wendy are going to have to be absolute brilliant managers of change,” said Klein. “If they bat 1.000, they can pull it off.”
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