Susan Zirinsky is in hyper-drive. Constantly. Nobody embodies the uber-competitive, get-that-story-or-die mentality of TV network news better than Zirinsky, executive producer of 48 Hours.
What propels her? "You mean besides fear?" she asks. This from a woman considered one of the best and brightest TV news producers in the business today. Claiming an "insatiable curiosity written into my genetic code," she thrives on four hours of sleep every night: "I'm afraid of missing something:"
Zirinsky, 52, cut her journalistic teeth during the Watergate era. By 1974, her senior year in college, she was working as a full-time researcher in CBS's Washington bureau. Then, President Richard Nixon resigned. "It was like the greatest seduction of all time," she says of her first CBS gig.
As befits a 24/7 news junkie, Zirinsky is fascinated by politics and history. After spending 17 years in Washington, primarily as a producer at the CBS Evening News, including serving as the lead White House producer throughout the Reagan years, she moved to New York. There, she has produced magazine shows, political coverage, and special-event coverage, including the widely acclaimed 9/11. Zirinsky has earned numerous awards but considers the Emmy, Peabody, and Murrow awards for 9/11 the most memorable.
She has covered four wars, every major foreign trip made by Presidents Carter and Reagan, and every presidential campaign since 1976. Her most interesting interview? "Boris Yeltsin as he came into power in the Soviet Union."
And she keeps trophies of her 32-year career. In a desk drawer. In her office. The treasure trove includes the original script Walter Cronkite read during the CBS Evening News the day Nixon resigned. Cronkite tossed it in the garbage. "I dug into the trash, pulled it out, and said, 'This is history.'" (She keeps a rocket-propelled grenade launcher from the Gulf War at home.)
She also keeps her secrets. "The Tiananmen Square student revolt was the most profound experience. We hid a famous dissident, then took him to the embassy where he would live for a year before being granted asylum in the U.S.," she says. "We never told anyone in New York." Her one big regret? "I wasn't at the Berlin Wall when it came down. I didn't get to cover it."
News is her life.
Even her wedding day has a work-related tale. In fact, it takes her a moment to remember the anniversary date—"I think it was July 20"—but she knows it was the last day of the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. She and Joe Peyronnin, then another Washington-based producer for CBS, took the day off and eloped. (He's now executive vice president of news at Telemundo).
Immediately after getting married, she met with film writer and director Jim Brooks for 2½ hours. He was doing research for an upcoming movie, Broadcast News. So compelling was Zirinsky that Brooks based the movie's lead character, played by Holly Hunter, on her.
Brooks knew what he was doing. Zirinsky thrives on the pressure that comes with producing network news. She has been at the helm of 48 Hours
since 1996, and it has been a wild ride. The show has aired almost every night of the week during that time. Plus, it has proved to be an invaluable asset to the network, which has used it to fill three hours a week when the entertainment lineup was weak.
The flip side: The show has narrowly missed cancellation when development is strong. Indeed, there were moments last month when it was uncertain whether 48 Hours would survive. Zirinsky claims she wasn't fazed: "Isn't it exciting living on the edge of the bubble?"