It has been a unique journey in journalism for Shawna Thomas, an executive with experience producing for vastly different news outlets. She previously spent a decade at NBC News, including a stint as senior producer on Meet the Press, three years as Vice News D.C. bureau chief—and a stint as development exec at the short-lived Quibi. Thomas made a significant leap early last year, when then-CBS News president Susan Zirinsky hired her to be the new executive producer of CBS This Morning. Thomas had her work cut out.
Not only was she new to CBS News, but the CTM executive producer role was her first ep role ever. She was taking the reins of a morning show that had suddenly parted ways with its ep and was mired in third place by a substantial margin, shedding more adults 25-54 than its competitors. Yes, CBS remains third on weekday mornings behind the more established GMA and Today show, but the program is slowly but surely closing the Nielsen ratings gap with its contemporaries—making inroads among the aforementioned A25-54 group.
Thomas stepped into the executive producer role in February 2021, but the transformation of weekday mornings on CBS formally started one year ago today, when CBS This Morning relaunched as CBS Mornings—and former NFL player and TV sports personality Nate Burleson supplanted longtime CBS Newser Anthony Mason as show co-host, joining Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil at a new Times Square studio desk.
To mark one year since the relaunch, we spoke with Thomas and Burleson on Tuesday via Zoom. Thomas spoke about her imprint on the broadcast, CBS News boss Neeraj Khemlani‘s mandate and what viewers can expect in the coming TV season. Burleson looked back on his first 365 days as a full-time TV newser, his transition from sports to news—and the influence of Michael Strahan on his career. Our conversation with Burleson is the focus of a second post. Below, our chat with Thomas:
TVNewser: CBS Mornings seems to be closing the Nielsen ratings gap slowly but surely, particularly in female demos. In addition to that, along with the new anchor trio, how else is the show different today versus Sept. 7, 2021?
Thomas: Well, I’d like to think I started to instill in the staff before we got to Sept. 7, 2021 what I’d like to see. We knew Nate would have chemistry with our team. We knew that from the moment he walked into the studio, when we were still CBS This Morning. There’s no equation for this [morning TV]—like if I could do something mathematical and be like, “this will work with this, which will work with this, boom!” everyone will love it. I would.
I think what’s changed is, these three people plus [CBS News correspondent] Vlad [Duthiers] have really grown and gelled together. I think our storytelling is important. I think how the show looks is important. People want to wake up with people who like each other, if you’re going to turn on one of these morning programs. These three people like each other—and we see that more and more as the show goes on.
They can understand each other’s rhythms and play off each other. And you can’t do that at first—like this is a dance, it’s almost like music—and they musically, gelled together. We’ve come a long way in that respect since September 7 2021.
Can you explain the decision to bring in Nate and move Anthony off the program as full-time host?
We needed a refresh for the show. We needed to restart. One of the things that Anthony still brings to the show and brought to previous versions, as well as to the network in general, is this love of music—this love of creative storytelling. Being able to use Anthony in that respect even more and be able to travel him even more—you see the love that he has of these artists that he talks to—and I think that was a benefit.
One of the things I wanted to refresh was, “Can I create a different feeling in the morning if I bring a different third person in?” I think it really worked with Nate—and the added benefit is even more Anthony storytelling.
What is the mandate from Neeraj as far as CBS Mornings goes—and what’s your working relationship like?
I think the mandate from him is: make a show people want to watch. The way I sort of have interpreted that, from the moment walking in the door, is I want to make a show my staff wants to watch. My staff is, for the most part, in the demo of adults 25 to 54. Some a little younger, some of them are older, some people who’ve been at CBS a long time, some people who just came.
But the thing I tell them all the time—and I think Neeraj backs me up on this is, “if you don’t want to watch the show, why are we making the show?” So, pitch the stories that you want to watch. Pitch the thing you’re curious about, that your friends are curious about, that you see and are like, “oh, I would love to go to that place.” Does every story get bought? No. But I think it’s makes something that when you turn on the TV, you don’t want to necessarily turn it off.
Earlier this year, I was in California, on vacation. I’m watching the West Coast version of the show, clearly—and I was at this Hot Springs Resort and I turned it on multiple times and didn’t want to leave my room. I wasn’t super involved in those two weeks, I was off. And I was like, oh, they’re getting it. They’re making something that, like, I know I could go to this nice pool and sit by [and] have a pina colada, but I kind of want to stay in my room and finish this. That’s number one.
This is also a business, so part of the mandate is bringing the share of women 25-54, men 25-54. Figure that out and make a show that that does that—and we’re starting to do it.
We do this thing in television news, where people go to journalism school–I have a master’s degree in journalism and undergrad degree in political communication—and you learn how to make TV. I went to USC, I learned how to shoot, I learned how to edit, I learned how to tell stories—and I learned about ethics. Then I went to NBC and practiced all those skills and got better and I told political news stories. But no one ever actually teaches you about the business of television news when you are a producer, and you’re like “oh, I got this. I know how to make television.” Then, you get into a job like this one where the first word in my title is “executive.”
Neeraj has taken me under his wing in that idea of, “you’re running a business, you need to understand the budget, you need to understand profit and loss, you need to understand what levers you can pull.” I’m sort of back in school again, as I stare at spreadsheets. When I came in the door, I did not get that. It’s a privilege that they pay me to learn. I’ve always thought of journalism that way—people pay you to learn something new every day.
I’m being paid to learn how to run this business—and then how I do human resources and our staffing correctly and make sure our staff has what they need and has the rest that they need. But those are the things I must think about, because to continue to make this television show, we have to continue to make money to pay for these amazing stories, the staff has to feel that they are being understood and heard—and you have to create an environment that allows creativity to happen.
Neeraj has taught me some of the things that he knew from his jobs previously—and when he was brought in to do—and helped walk me through these things that I needed to learn as well.
What can the viewer expect coming into this new season of CBS Mornings?
I think the viewer can expect even more beautiful storytelling, original stories, getting all three anchors out into the field more, you know. I have a plan to really involve Tony in election coverage, for choosing a specific state for him to focus on that will then play into how we approach 2023 and 2024. So that’s number one.
And two, hopefully, Neeraj won’t get mad at me about this, because it does cost money, but I really do want to take the show on the road at least a few times next year. I was talking to one of our correspondents yesterday about ways to do that around politics, but also do it in such a way that exposes the CBS Mornings brand—and CBS News in general to a younger audience. We’re figuring that out, I’m going to be vague for now.
We have to meet people a little bit more where they are—and part of that is trying to expand even more. So, our social and digital presence. One thing I walked in the door saying is “okay, how many social people do we have, how do we approach this?” Our social team has grown. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of making people understand that social is not different than the television show.
Our producers and our social team are working more closely together to get content out to where the audience that we want is. Even if that audience doesn’t turn on the television at 7 a.m., Eastern Time, if they’re seeing stuff on their TikTok feeds—our TikTok audience has grown tremendously in the last year.
If the slightly older audience is seeing stuff on their Facebook feeds, if they’re starting to connect the dots that CBS Mornings is content that I want to see and share with my friends and I want to talk about—that’s the thing that I have to continue to push. I think you know that our numbers are better, we are growing. That is awesome. But I need to get our content in front of as many people as humanly possible, because then they’ll want to watch it.
And that’s on me!