NEW YORK — CBS is close to signing "Good Morning America" news anchor Paula Zahn to replace Kathleen Sullivan as co-anchor of "CBS This Morning," network sources said Friday. The only thing standing in the way of Zahn's defection to the rival morning broadcast was said to be ABC's contract option to make a matching counteroffer.
The decision to replace Sullivan was an unexpected development that network sources said had less to do with Sullivan's recent performance than with CBS' desire to take Zahn away from ratings front-runner "Good Morning America."
Although Sullivan had said last October that "the ax is right there," referring to her possible fate if ratings didn't improve, the perennial third-place "CBS This Morning" has been getting better numbers recently. It also has gotten additional on-air talent and other financial resources under executive producer Erik Sorenson, the former KCBS-TV Channel 2 station manager who was hired last fall. CBS News officials had expressed approval of the show's recent improvements and Sullivan's performance.
"I expect Kathleen and (co-anchor) Harry (Smith) will be around for a long time," Sorenson said at the end of December.
Nonetheless, CBS was said to have wanted to obtain the services of Zahn, whose contract with ABC was about to expire.
She has been delivering the news on "Good Morning America" and anchoring ABC's "World News This Morning" since May, 1988. From January, 1986 until June, 1987, she was an anchor and reporter at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.
CBS News President David Burke and Sorenson were attending a CBS affiliates meeting in Phoenix on Friday and were not available for comment. CBS officially would neither confirm nor deny reports about Sullivan, who was in Atlanta anchoring "CBS This Morning." But Sullivan, through a spokesman, said that she was being replaced.
"She's surprised and disappointed, but this is a change that management wants to make," John Scanlon, a spokesman for Sullivan, said Friday. "We're looking forward to conversations about other areas at CBS."
It was unclear when Sullivan, whose million-dollar contract runs until November, might leave the show. "She will cooperate fully with CBS about the timing of her departure," Scanlon said.
One possibility for Sullivan would be at CBS Sports. While she was at ABC, Sullivan in 1980 was the first woman to co-anchor an Olympics telecast. She could play a role in CBS' coverage of the Olympics in 1992.
"CBS This Morning's" share of the 7-to-9 a.m. audience has increased 20% over a year ago. Last week, "Good Morning America" had a 4.5 rating and 20 share; "Today" had a 3.8 rating and 18 share. CBS had a 2.6 and a 12 share.