“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell is in third place in the ratings, but sources at the network gripe that she’s got a first-class attitude — even as she faces getting sidelined by her sharp-elbowed, bean-counting boss.
CBS News co-president Neeraj Khemlani — who has been slashing costs in a bid to make the network profitable — is eyeing O’Donnell, who reportedly makes between $6 million and $8 million a year, and whose contract is set to expire this spring, sources told The Post.
“The next big decision from him is revamping the ‘Evening News,’” said a CBS insider, who explained that the network can find a cheaper alternative to be last in the ratings.
“It’s not a money maker,” a second source said, adding that O’Donnell’s “toxic behavior” is weighing the show down.
Speculation that her days are numbered has surged since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war. O’Donnell is the only evening TV news anchor who isn’t in Eastern Europe, which has taken a toll on ratings.
For the week of Feb. 28, CBS’ total viewers sank to less than 5.1 million, trailing NBC’s 7.4 million and ABC’s 8.8 million, Nielsen said. Prior to the war, O’Donnell was reaching around 5.6 million to 5.3 million viewers a night.
“David Muir, Lester Holt and Anderson Cooper are all in Ukraine. Where’s Norah? We are in the middle of a war and she’s reporting from Washington, DC,” said a source. “Either she didn’t want to go or leadership didn’t want her to go. It’s bad either way.”
Meanwhile, “CBS Mornings” anchor Tony Dokoupil, rumored as a possible successor to O’Donnell, has been reporting from Poland and appearing on her show nightly. Sources said O’Donnell is finally being sent to Poland this weekend and will report from there on Monday, but some insiders say “it’s too late.”
The 48-year-old anchor’s “The Devil Wears Prada” routine includes a full “dress rehearsal” of the “Evening News” half an hour before the show airs — an often tense ritual that has seen O’Donnell chewing out dressing room stylists over her hair and makeup, sources said.
“There was an incident last year in the studio where she ranted about how her bronzer was wrong,” one insider said, noting that her hair and makeup staff take the brunt of her tantrums and have been known to end up in tears.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic and people are dying.”
“She’s a news actress,” another insider said, noting that the dress rehearsals are “very unusual” for news broadcasts — especially for an anchor who’s three years into a job. A third added that the show’s producers use the quirky routine as a way to coach the “robotic” O’Donnell and “make her look more human,” by critiquing how she delivers the news and reads from the teleprompter.
Some of O’Donnell’s staffers in DC won’t miss her while she’s gone. Insiders said O’Donnell has a $65,000-a-year wardrobe allowance and she is particular about which designers she wears.
“It’s a clothing allowance, every news anchor has one. That figure is incorrect,” O’Donnell’s publicist Cindi Berger said, declining to provide a specific number.
Recently, O’Donnell posted a photo of herself on Instagram sporting a black Oscar de la Renta bow-belt fitted wool jacket that retails for $2,700 at Nordstrom at a time when CBS News is going through major cuts, sources said.
O’Donnell’s daily demands also include having her Gucci slides waiting in front of her dressing room door so she can put them on as soon as she is off the set.
“I am vehemently refuting these outrageous and sexist claims!” Berger emailed in response to questions about her client’s wardrobe and treatment of staff.
“It’s offensive that female anchors and reporters get this type of sexist treatment,” Khemlani said in an email statement late Friday. “We support Norah and the Evening News team and the quality journalism they deliver each and every night.”
The dress rehearsals have likewise rankled the network’s journalists, who claim that O’Donnell uses them to exert outsize control over broadcasts, scrapping segments at the last minute as she fusses over her appearance.
A news anchor typically might go over a few segments or scripts, but O’Donnell requires everyone from the producers, reporters and editors to run through the entire program. Not only does that mean the segments must be finished early and are thus not as polished, but it also gives O’Donnell the chance to tear up the segments.
“The rehearsals are an excuse to blow up packages 15 minutes before the show,” one source griped. “She changes the words to segments. Everyone has a stroke.”
Now, insiders say O’Donnell is facing heat from Khemlani, who was hired last year to revamp the organization. As previously reported by The Post, Khemlani’s gruff, exacting management style has ruffled feathers at CBS, leading to the departure of a slew of well-respected execs and journalists, including London Bureau Chief Andy Clarke, who left amid a spat over the cost of extracting Afghan journalists and fixers who worked for CBS.
The exec and O’Donnell began bumping heads last year when The Post first reported that CBS has been quietly searching for O’Donnell’s replacement ahead of her contract expiring this spring.
At the time, Khemlani denied a potential move or anchor shakeup, telling The Post: “There are no plans to move the Evening News from Washington. Norah’s presence in Washington has elevated the CBS Evening News’ coverage on all fronts — politics, breaking news, to big interviews including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen just last week. Her reporting on the military and domestic abuse has won awards and changed policies in Washington. And in addition to making headlines, the program is gaining audience share.”
Tensions further escalated in January when CNN reported that Khemlani approached former MSNBC anchor Brian Williams at least twice about the gig. O’Donnell’s camp was “shaken” and “very angered” by the reports, a person with knowledge said.
“They feel like Neeraj is devaluing Norah and the credibility of the network,” the source said.
Some people inside CBS believe that reports about Khemlani shopping for a new anchor could be a clever tactic to get O’Donnell to take a massive pay cut. But the consequence of that is that CBS looks “stupid” if they re-sign the anchor after trying to replace her, one source noted.
When asked publicly about O’Donnell’s job security, Khemlani told Deadline in January that CBS has “no current plans to change” what it is doing, but sources doubted the exec’s words.
“I don’t know if Neeraj can make the final decision but he’s going to bring [ratings] data to George Cheeks and Bob Bakish,” the source said, referring to the CEOs of CBS and its parent Paramount Global. “Norah’s contract is up in May. There’s time.”