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It's a big leap from broadcast to webcast

Respected TV journalist Susan Zirinsky helps pioneer a hybrid format blending fact, drama.

March 16, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Twenty years ago, CBS producer Susan Zirinsky helped inspire the character of Jane Craig, the hard-charging television producer played by Holly Hunter in "Broadcast News" who fiercely resists the devolution of news into show business.

Now Zirinsky herself is on the frontier of melding journalism and entertainment in an online project for one of CBS' prime-time shows.

The longtime executive producer of "48 Hours" and a small team from her program are behind a series of low-budget "webumentaries" that complement the post-nuclear disaster drama "Jericho." The five-minute pieces for, called "Countdown," contain interviews with real experts about disaster readiness, radiation poisoning and similar topics, woven into a prequel about one of the show's characters.

In the mini-episodes -- posted online Wednesday nights after "Jericho" airs on the West Coast -- Robert Hawkins, a shadowy FBI agent, researches how to survive a nuclear attack in the weeks leading up to the blasts. While Hawkins is on the run from unknown assailants, he gets video transmissions over e-mail and on his cellphone that are actually reported pieces based on interviews with government officials and academic experts.

The result is an unconventional pairing of fiction and news, complete with product placement. (The logo of AT&T, which sponsors the series, crops up every time Hawkins turns on an electronic device.) The unusual hybrid offers a new model for "webisodes," a genre the broadcast networks are scrambling to master in the YouTube age.

"A lot of the Internet stuff is a recitation of what we already know," said Ghen Maynard, the CBS executive vice president who oversees the network's new media programming. "To do it in a way that's really original to what is airing, but not a boring recitation of facts -- that's really what we're going for."

Zirinsky says merging the genres doesn't undermine the series' journalistic value.

"What we want is, in an interesting way, to impart a nugget of information," she said. "The drama? It's just the appetizer. The meat of the course is still what we do for a living.

"Are some people going to feel squeamish about it?" she added. "You bet. But I think as the world evolves, there is the ability to bring in a drama-mentary, if you will, into existence, if the people behind it have their moral compass intact. We are genetically newsmen. We are genetically incapable of abandoning our core values."

That said, Zirinsky was a little wary when she and her producers first started discussing the concept for "Countdown." They had been recruited by the network's entertainment division to do the online series after the first attempt at a "Jericho"-based webisode failed to take off.

"To have someone of Susan's caliber do this is a great coup," Maynard said.

The "48 Hours" group is frequently called on as CBS' go-to team for big projects. Zirinsky produced the documentaries "9/11," "Elvis by the Presleys" and "Three Days in September," as well as lighter fare like "Chaotic," the Britney Spears-Kevin Federline reality show that ran on the now-defunct UPN.

But the group had never tried its hand at scripted programming. Still, senior producer Anthony Batson and creative producer Chuck Stevenson urged Zirinsky to consider a format that incorporated some of the "Jericho" story line.

"I was nervous because it's nothing we'd done," she said on a recent afternoon, sitting in her office with the two other producers. "But they said, 'We have to have a little connectivity to the broadcast. We can't just have these interviews.' "

Added Batson wryly: "The word you're not using right now is 'drama.' "

Zirinsky winced. "It's hard for me to say that word," she said. "The d-word."

The veteran producer, known to her colleagues simply as "Z," is steeped in news. She got her start at CBS in 1972 as a part-time production clerk in the network's Washington bureau, working with CBS heavyweights during the Watergate era. (Her prized possession is Walter Cronkite's copy of the TelePrompTer script he read the night that President Nixon resigned; she fished it out of the trash and asked him if she could keep it.) She went on to direct the network's coverage of two presidential campaigns and foreign events, including China's Tiananmen Square uprising, eventually serving as the No. 2 producer of the "CBS Evening News." Since 1996, she's been in charge of "48 Hours," which now focuses exclusively on real-life mysteries.

Zirinsky hasn't been afraid to court controversy. In 2004, she was sharply criticized for airing photos of Princess Diana taken moments after the 1997 crash that killed her. After the CBS producer worked on "Chaotic," which chronicled the earthy details of the courtship of Spears and Federline, the New York Times lamented her involvement as a sign of degrading network news standards

"I don't know that I would put it on my resume," Zirinsky said of the latter. "But it was just about telling a story. So no apologies."

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