Not-So-Suddenly Susan!

Not long ago, in the spring of 2008, news reports surfaced suggesting that Ms. Couric would likely leave CBS on the heels of the presidential election, if not sooner. But now given CBS’s $12.5 billion third-quarter write-down, most TV insiders seem to agree it is unlikely that the network could afford to buy out the reportedly $40 million remaining on Ms. Couric’s contract even if they wanted to. That leaves Ms. Couric in control of her destiny and likely to stick around at the network until the moment of her choosing.

Last year, when Ms. Couric was feeling disappointed with the Internet platforms at her disposal at CBS, she met with former Today producer–turned–YouTube executive Jordan Hoffner. The meeting resulted in a number of improved digital outlets for Ms. Couric.

But when it comes to figuring out how to occasionally dine on airtime outside the usual CBS News box, Ms. Couric doesn’t have to look far for guidance. Ms. Zirinsky has spent much of the past decade constructing sturdy pathways between the news division and CBS entertainment.

In short, she is a powerful ally for Ms. Couric, and one who is likely to play an increasingly important role in the months to come. “They mesh extremely well,” CBS News president Sean McManus told The Observer on Monday morning. “They have a lot in common. They’re both incredibly competitive.

“One of the frustrations that both we and Katie have is that a lot of the things that she is so good at doing she can’t do between 6:30 and 7 every night,” he added.

The forays into prime time will allow more flexibility. “There’s no reason why she can’t interview Barack Obama on Wednesday and Lil Wayne on Thursday,” said Mr. McManus.

“It was always part of the plan when we hired her,” he added.

Sure enough, Ms. Zirinsky and Ms. Couric have teamed up in the past on topics such as homeland security and the Virginia Tech massacre. But on the heels of the Palin interviews, Ms. Zirinsky sensed the potential to step things up and told Ms. Couric as much.

“I said, ‘Look, we should be playing off your fabulous election year,’” said Ms. Zirinksy. “‘Everybody is acknowledging what a great interviewer you are, something we’ve all known. But let’s play off it.’ This is the time to really go and say, ‘What about this?’”

Ms. Couric is hardly the first CBS News employee to benefit from Ms. Zirinsky’s vulcanized enthusiasm. At a time when much of the broadcast journalism business is beset with layoffs and hand-wringing, Ms. Zirinsky’s shop is seen by many as a shelter from the hellbroth of the downturn.

Ms. Zirinsky won’t disclose the size of her team. “I will never tell,” said Ms. Zirinsky. “To me, my staff is the ultimate game of chess. The rumor among the executives here is that if I was ever killed in an accident, it might take them years to untangle who’s where and doing what.”

Ms. Zirinksy, who grew up in the suburbs of New York, originally joined CBS News part-time, in the early ’70s, when she was still an undergraduate at American University. “I’m sleeping in the dorms, and I’m staking out Attorney General John Mitchell at the Jefferson Hotel,” recalled Ms. Zirinksy. “Dan Rather used to say that I arrived at CBS from a hospital in a shipping bag.”

Over the past three and a half decades, Ms. Zirinsky has held countless producing jobs for CBS News in Washington and New York. Somewhere along the way, she picked up the nickname Z, was fictionalized in a movie, covered myriad wars and forged a strong working relationship with CBS president Leslie Moonves. “I really have a creative attachment to Moonves,” said Ms. Zirinsky. “And he to us.”

“The people who are the best—Katie, Lesley Stahl, Steve Kroft, Scott Pelley, Mike Wallace—they’re all so motivated,” said Ms. Zirinsky. “It may be a malfunction. But we all have this gene. It’s the drive gene.”

“We’re in warp speed,” she added. “Just bring your underwear.”

fgillette@observer.com