“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell’s pay package got slashed by more than half this spring amid a brutal round of cost cuts at the third-place network, The Post has learned.
According to insiders, CBS News re-signed the 48-year-old anchor in April with a yearly salary of $3.8 million — down from the previous $8 million — following reports that the network had been casting around for a replacement as O’Donnell’s ratings continue to sag.
CBS execs gave O’Donnell a “low ball” offer during the hard-knuckle negotiations, which they “expected O’Donnell to reject,” according to a source briefed on the talks. When she accepted it, some executives appeared surprised, the source added.
Insiders said O’Donnell’s capitulation came after months of clashes with Neeraj Khemlani, the sharp-elbowed, cost-slashing co-president of CBS News who had been openly looking for a new anchor to replace her during the months before her contract was up in April.
Khemlani reached out to former MSNBC anchor Brian Williams, who turned him down, according to a report from CNN. He also considered NBC’s Craig Melvin and, as reported by The Post, even mulled promoting Tony Dokoupil, her old co-anchor at “CBS Mornings,” to the role.
Insiders said Dokoupil’s candidacy was particularly galling for O’Donnell, as Khemlani in January assigned the 41-year-old morning show host to anchor a special broadcast from from Washington, DC, on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 capitol riots. And shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, CBS News again set tongues wagging by initially sending Dokoupil instead of O’Donnell to Poland to cover the unfolding war.
A spokesperson for CBS News denied Khemlani was seeking to dump O’Donnell.
“Wrong again. Neeraj led the effort to retain and re-sign about a dozen of our biggest anchors and correspondents over the last year including Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King — and recruited a few new ones like Nate Burleson and Robert Costa,” the spokesperson said.
“While there are huge prime time openings elsewhere in the News industry, CBS News has the No. 1 news broadcasts and finished the season with multiple shows including morning and evenings in their most competitive position ever. Apparently, the more false stories the NY Post writes, the better things go for CBS News.”
However, sources said the thinly veiled job search damaged O’Donnell’s reputation and infuriated her team. Tensions rose so high that her agent, UTA co-president Jay Sures, went over Khemlani’s head to negotiate her contract with CBS CEO George Cheeks and Shari Redstone, the chairwoman of CBS parent Paramount Global, sources said.
According to one well-placed source, O’Donnell had been “telling everybody how close she’d gotten to Redstone” during the contract negotiations.
Meanwhile, it is rumored that O’Donnell’s camp leaked to the press that Sures had reached out to incoming CNN boss Chris Licht about hiring the anchor. The Daily Beast reported earlier this month that Sures’ attempt was “rebuffed” because Licht “could not negotiate before his start date” on May 2.
A source close to CNN, however, told The Post that O’Donnell was “never under consideration” to join the network. A second source added that the power grab “annoyed” Licht, with a third noting that Licht, who previously worked with O’Donnell when she co-anchored CBS’ morning show, was adamant that the exec would not want to “reunite” with the “difficult” anchor. Reps for Licht and CNN did not return requests for comment.
In the end, O’Donnell is still working at CBS News under Khemlani because “she didn’t have any options and he didn’t either,” one well-placed source told The Post.
As previously reported by The Post, O’Donnell has ruffled feathers with “toxic behavior” that includes chewing out dressing room stylists over her hair and makeup and putting staff through the unusual daily ritual of a full “dress rehearsal” of the “Evening News” half an hour before the show airs.
O’Donnell’s daily demands also included 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.
“Nobody wants to work with her,” said a source. “She’s too difficult.”
O’Donnell’s publicist Cindi Berger and CBS disputed the claims at the time.
While CBS appears to be doubling down with O’Donnell for at least another three years, insiders tell The Post that “CBS Evening News” is having a difficult time finding candidates who want to interview for the nightly newscast’s executive producer job, which will be vacant when interim EVP Al Ortiz retires in July.
“By re-signing her contract, they’ve given the message to the company that last place is good enough,” a source told The Post. “Now, they’re having trouble getting an outside executive producer in part because nobody wants to deal with her and also because the ratings are below 5 million.”
Sources say that top contenders to run the “Evening News” are internal, and that O’Donnell’s right hand, executive story editor Adam Verdugo or senior broadcast producer Alturo Rhymes, will likely get the job.
In the last two months, “Evening News” has dipped below 5 million in total average daily viewers. according to Nielsen. O’Donnell’s show grabbed 5.4 million in the first quarter, trailing “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” and “ABC World News Tonight,” which nabbed 7.8 million and 8.9 million, respectively.
Media insiders say that Holt and ABC host David Muir make between $12 million and $20 million. Meanwhile at CBS, execs have tried to shrink expenses on the “Evening News,” which sources said isn’t a money-maker for the network. As previously reported by The Post, O’Donnell’s predecessor Jeff Glor was making a modest $2 million.
Glor was replaced by O’Donnell, who was promoted by then-CBS News president Susan Zirinsky. Insiders have criticized Zirinsky for padding O’Donnell’s salary and spending millions to move the “Evening News” from New York to Washington, DC, with the promise that the program would reel in better ratings.
Last spring, the network brought in Khemlani and co-president Wendy McMahon to trim the fat — and some say, potentially sell the company or spin off some of its assets in the future.
“Neeraj did his job,” said a source, referring to the exec’s mandate from Cheeks and his boss, Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish, to cut costs and reorganize the network.
While Khemlani has revamped the organization by rehauling Gayle King’s “CBS Mornings” and restructuring the CBS News digital arm, there has been a drumbeat of high-level departures, as morale has cratered to an all-time low under the demanding exec.
“He has made enemies, but what’s his accomplishment?,” a source said. “He has damaged Norah. The show is never going to improve from third. CBS is no longer what it used to be. It’s not even close.”