Former CBS News chief Susan Zirinsky will head new documentary studio for ViacomCBS

By Stephen Battaglio

Former CBS News chief Susan Zirinsky is taking on a new role at the division's parent company ViacomCBS, where she will oversee documentary programming.

The company announced Wednesday that Zirinsky, 69, will head See It Now Studios, which will produce long-form news shows and documentary films that will be shown across ViacomCBS channels and its streaming service Paramount+.

The See It Now nameplate is a tribute to the 1951 CBS News series hosted by TV journalism legend Edward R. Murrow. Zirinsky joined CBS News in 1972 and has a deep connection to the division's storied history.

Zirinsky will report directly to George Cheeks, president and chief executive of CBS. She will collaborate with Neeraj Khemlani and Wendy McMahon, presidents and co-heads of CBS News and Stations on projects for CBS News.

After many years as an executive producer for CBS News, Zirinsky was named president of the division in January 2019, succeeding David Rhodes. She became the first woman to lead a broadcast TV news division.

Zirinsky's promotion was heralded by the division's veterans because of her enthusiasm and commitment to quality journalism.

But Zirinsky has always been most comfortable in a dark control room or editing suite where programs are created. She was said to be less happy with the administrative aspects of the news president job, which included layoffs of 75 staff members as the pandemic put economic pressure on the division.

CBS News — along with its broadcast and cable competitors — is also seeing audience declines as traditional TV outlets are losing viewers to streaming.

Zirinsky stepped down in May, replaced by Khemlani and McMahon as part of a restructuring at CBS.

The company made the executive changes amid a housecleaning at its TV stations division following a Los Angeles Times investigation that led to the ouster of its former president Peter Dunn and his second in command David Friend. The investigation alleged that the executives bullied female managers and blocked efforts to hire and retain Black journalists at the stations.

Zirinsky's move to a new role after leaving the president's job is unusual in network TV, as most executives would depart after losing a post of such stature. But Zirinsky's experience in turning around long-form programs remains valuable to the company as streaming has increased the demand for original content across ViacomCBS.

Zirinsky noted that documentaries have become a hot commodity in recent years, and having a dedicated unit will enable ViacomCBS to fully capitalize on the trend.

"We weren't able to offer what is extremely popular right now," Zirinsky said in an interview. "CBS News has been for my lifetime some of the best storytellers ever and that's the base of where we will operate."

Zirinsky's unit has two documentaries premiering on Paramount+ this week to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "The 26th Street Garage: The FBI's Untold Story of 9/11," which tells the story of the agency's makeshift headquarters after the attack begins streaming on Thursday.

On Friday, "Race Against Time: The CIA and 9/11," about the CIA's efforts to stop the attack, airs on CBS and will be available on streaming.

"This is a studio built on the foundation of the incredible journalism and storytelling of CBS News but with a broader remit," Cheeks said in a statement. "See It Now Studios will have the flexibility to work across a range of production formats and concepts to meet the growing needs of linear and streaming platforms, including producing premium documentary content for Paramount+. There is no one better to lead this new unit than the journalistic and producing force of nature that is Susan Zirinsky."

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