Photo: John Paul Filo/CBS
Susan Zirinsky has worked in the trenches of CBS News for 50 years now, having started her network career in 1972 as a 20-year-old part-time clerk for the Washington bureau where, yes, she helped cover Watergate . In the 1980s, her relentless energy and experiences spanning the Capitol were literally used by James L. Brooks as a model for the character of Holly Hunter in News broadcast. In the 1990s, she began a 25-year cast 48 hours in the true crime storytelling machine, he stays. And now, after a 29-month stint overseeing the Eye network’s entire news division, Zirinsky has settled into her next act: helping to satisfy the streaming industry’s insatiable appetite for documentary programming.
About a year ago, Zirinsky partnered with Paramount Global-owned CBS to launch See It Now Studios with a mandate to develop documentaries, docuseries and other non-fiction content for linear and digital – but with a focus on streaming services, especially those within the Paramount family. Paramount+ has already launched several See It Now projects, including a missing persons investigation series produced with Tyler Perry; a six-part documentary series on the rise of right-wing hate groups and their role in the attempted January 6 insurgency; and unique documentaries about Ghislaine Maxwell and the wives of Russian oligarchs. And just last week, the streamer created the most ambitious and cinematic See It Now production to date: 11 minutes, which explores the stories of those who survived the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival mass shooting in Las Vegas. Buffering caught up with Zirinsky to discuss her thoughts on how the streaming boom is disrupting the long-form news industry, if we may have reached Peak Docuseries and why she doesn’t think the love of TV for true crime will never fade.
Buffering: So even though See It Now produces for all sorts of platforms, streaming has been a top priority for the studio. As someone who has spent most of his long career working in linear television news, how does streaming change what you decide to produce and how you produce it?
Susan Zirinsky: In streaming, things don’t happen overnight. You don’t greenlight a project, unlike the network, where two days later I could give you a full hour on the subject. X. These are much more involved. And you have to have an intuitive sensitivity of what you think will resonate and how to break through the tsunami of material, which can draw people in.
Is there something about the streaming audience that’s different from linear, or something about the platform that lets you explore stories in a different way than you could when you were primarily working for CBS?
Absolutely. I think that, first of all, the time available on [network TV] is now absolutely at a premium. We did a two-hour Watergate special for the network that was very well received and a Holocaust special that just won recognition at the Venice Film Festival. We therefore produce for the linear. But streaming gives you that array of longer storytelling capability, whether it’s a single doc or a docuseries.
If you turn on one of the SVODs and start watching an entertainment series, what happens? You stuff yourself. And why are you stuffing yourself? You binge because you get attached to the people on this entertainment show. And that’s something I’ve noticed in the production of docuseries. I find that if there are characters that continue, which they are, I want to be with them and I want to see the evolution of the story. You want to take the journey with the story and you want to see how it ends, that’s why the frenzy happens… Streaming allows you to develop characters that guide you through a storyline. It’s very satisfying.
Are budgets bigger for streaming than what you’ve been used to with network TV?
Well, it depends on the project. Some things are more. I have an agreement with [Paramount+/Showtime exec] David Nevins, who wanted a director, so he helps finance it through P+. And we’re doing a feature film project on Afghanistan that will be released in 2023. I’m not going to say what it is because we haven’t really announced it yet, but it’s an extraordinary project.
I’ve heard TV critics and even viewers say that streamers may have become too addicted to docuseries, that ideas that would probably be best explored in a two-hour documentary are stretched in order to increase the number of platform commitments. What’s your take on the trend?
First of all, I think Terry Wrong [See It Now senior executive producer] and I watch every project, whether it’s a one-off documentary or a multi-episode series, and we have to see the evolution of a story. It’s not uncommon for someone to come up with an idea for four, five or six episodes and we narrow it down to three or four. It’s not unusual for us to have a three and then feel like there’s so much more material, let’s do a fourth episode. But we also do single docs. We were approached by a British company to co-produce a project with them called The secret life of the wives of oligarchs. We watched it, we chatted episodically – but it was absolutely one movie and that’s the decision we made.
I think every [idea] comes in the form of an open sandwich: it has the option of adding extra layers and extra bread and making it a series, or we look at it and say, “This is going to be a much stronger single from 90 minutes. doctor. There is no formula; There is no rule. It has to have editorial value to be episodic and to be able to carry it. There’s nothing worse than getting to two episodes and you’re thinking, “We should stop here.” We did not have this problem. We think everything we did in multi-episode felt like the right amount.
It’s true, though, that platforms currently seem to really want more docuseries than docs, right?
I think it’s fair to say that the majority are interested in the episodes. But I’ve found while pitching to outside SVOD and cable that they’re always open to unique movie ideas.
The real crime is something you were doing on 48 hours before it was cool. What is your assessment of the state of the genre now that it has become so ubiquitous, especially in streaming? Are there too many now, or is there no such thing?
I think true crime is rich, it’s provocative and it doesn’t go away. It does not decrease. I think the genre is like mystery books. There’s something about locking yourself into an incredible story and wondering, “Where is the justice, and is it being achieved?” You get lost in the story. And it crosses all socio-economic levels, like with a rogue tinder Where Bad vegan.
In the true crime space, See It Now has already done never seen again with Tyler Perry for Paramount+. Nothing else in the pipeline?
We’re working on developing something with a Texas Ranger who’s partially retired, and I’m just going to give you the cut line because I don’t want to tell you too much, but it’s the serial killer whispering . And it’s dynamically fascinating to see the process and hear the techniques. It’s just a part of humanity, sometimes depraved, that is fascinating.
Should you worry about competing for the same stories with your former colleagues from 48 hours?
So far, no one has come to us with a conflicting pitch. Often Judy [Tygard, executive producer of 48 Hours] calls and says, “We can’t handle that, are you interested?” And we will or won’t, depending on the editorial…. I called her for stories that I thought were worth looking into. So 48 and See It Now Studios are a deeply collaborative group. Besides, I would never hurt my baby.
Let’s talk about 11minutes, the docuseries about America’s worst gun massacre, which happened five years ago this month at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. You does not mention the name of the shooter in the draft at all.
It’s correct. We didn’t mention the shooter’s name and it was a conscious decision.
And the series also doesn’t get into his motivations or the still-unsolved mystery of his motive. Even though the docuseries format can cover a lot of ground, you’ve gone in another direction. Why is that?
Well, we really wanted to do the story of the survivors and what happens to people after it’s over. The focus was really more, when a seismic event like this happens, what happens to the people, the victims, the first responders, the people – just regular people – who come to help others ? Good may not outweigh evil, but it is a restorative play on humanity. I didn’t care about race, politics, anything like that. It was about people in this darkest time helping each other.