Susan Zirinsky is back in a job where she can do one of her favorite things: tell a few stories.
For decades, Zirinsky, who left her role as president of CBS News last year, had big tales to relate. As a senior producer at CBS News, she played a role in preparing some of the operation’s most dramatic work: dozens of episodes of “48 Hours”; a memorable documentary on 9/11; and a look inside the CIA for Showtime featuring 12 living directors.
Now, after two years of tending more to the management of the news business at ViacomCBS — re-engineering CBS’ morning program and “CBS Evening News” — she has more. Zirinsky heads See It Now Studios, an independent production unit that she expects to launch documentary films and series for a range of ViacomCBS properties as well as outside parties. “I’m not a sliver of the network, or producing just for the inside,” she tells Variety in an interview. “My mandate is to be a studio.”
Her first series, for the streaming-video hub Paramount Plus, debuts Thursday. “Indivisible: Healing Hate” is a six-part documentary series that examines the rise of domestic terror and extremism in the U.S. in recent decades, creating a thread that leads to the insurrection of January 6 of last year. The series will look at the controversial 1992 standoff between government officials and the Weaver family in Idaho in 1992 and the 1993 siege of Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, among other incidents. “We take you back in history and help you understand the distrust of the government,” says Zirinsky.
There are other projects in store, including a four-part series looking at Ghislane Maxwell through the eyes of friends and associates, and a three-part look at Elvis Presley, with a particular focus on behind-the-scenes behavior that would likely not be tolerated in 2022. Both are for Paramount Plus, though See It Now is also at work on a special program remembering the Holocaust for the CBS broadcast network. Two other Paramount Plus projects veer toward the non-traditional: “Never Seen Again” opens with a 30-second anecdote from a person who is the last to see someone who went missing. “Conversations With Dr. Agus” examines a particular medical issue that has a high-profile celebrity or politician involved.
Zirinsky emphasizes her interest in producing projects for parties that are not part of her corporate parent. “There is a great tableau outside in the SVOD world,” she says. “We want to be considered a studio that produces for multiple partners.”
She is entering a crowded and competitive field, but one that is seen as critical to the future of news. Many of the nation’s biggest news entities are getting involved in creating non-fiction programming. The New York Times is working with Disney’s FX, for example, and NBC News and MSNBC have both ramped up documentary production in recent months. CNN already has a robust division that has acquired or co-produced documentaries about Linda Ronstadt and Glen Campbell, among others.
But the rise of subscription-driven streaming hubs has turned up demand for such stuff, once typically the province of PBS, and, occasionally, top pay-TV services like HBO and Showtime. These days, non-fiction true-crime series can be found everywhere from Netflix to Fox Nation. ABC News has been filling Hulu with “insta-documentaries” about breaking events and enterprise projects from a new production pact with anchor George Stephanopoulos.
The ViacomCBS executive who oversees CBS properties has bigger hopes for See it Now. “In a very short time, Z and her team have built a robust slate of docu-series that provide unique windows into the types of stories that fans of this genre are passionate about,” said George Cheeks, president and CEO of CBS, who also oversees news and sports content for Paramount Plus. “See It Now Studios is off to a strong start delivering on its mandate to produce for Paramount Plus, CBS and the growing global marketplace for premium documentary content.”
One of Zirinsky’s competitive advantages is her track record. She has been with CBS News since joining the company as a production clerk in 1972 while attending college in Washington, D.C. Even the name of her company is meant to invoke some colorful past. “See It Now” was a landmark series created for CBS for Edward R. Murrow and his top producer, Fred W. Friendly.
Her current job frees her from some of the tough duties of her previous role. As CBS News’ first female president, Zirinsky took the reins of an organization going through an internal wringer. Charlie Rose had been fired from “CBS This Morning” and “60 Minutes” chief Jeff Fager had left the company, both after being accused of sexual harassment and denying the claims. The task of reviving morale — and its top programs, many of which were facing ratings challenges — fell to Zirinsky.
“There were a lot of things to rebuild after some very tough stuff,” says Zirinsky, who would ultimately rework the lineup of “CBS This Morning” and put Norah O’Donnell in the chair at “CBS Evening News,’ moving the show to Washington. “It was a rebuild from the ground up and I felt I was chosen because I had the trust of the organization, because I had done 90% of their jobs, including being a production secretary on the ‘Evening News.’ There wasn’t any job I really didn’t understand. My contribution was that I took some big swings, but I rebuilt the organization to the core of its values.” Her moves captured attention, but the two shows continue to lag rivals in the ratings. Zirinsky was replaced last year by Neeraj Khemlani and Wendy McMahon, who oversee a combined division that includes CBS News, CBS local stations and digital newsgathering — an assignment Zirinsky acknowledges was better left to other executives.
Zirinsky insisted on keeping a producer title while in the president’s role, an unorthodox maneuver. But she managed to work on projects, including one that went behind the scenes at Montefiore Hospital during the coronavirus pandemic and another that had Oprah Winfrey interview Prince Harry and Meghan.
She has more projects in development. One is a three-part series that examines the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas on the fifth anniversary of the event, and another is a six-part project that follows parents seeking justice for sons who have been killing in fraternity hazing incidents. There is a documentary series in the works that looks at America’s war in Afghanistan, and another looking at Watergate half a century after it changed U.S. history.
Zirinsky has long had a reputation as a workaholic, someone who is still at the office even after the cleaning crew has finished its work for the evening. She says she has more assignments to complete. “You know I don’t have an off switch.”