CBS News Boss McManus Plots Resurgence
McManus on Quality, Katie, ‘Early Show’
If journalism awards and nominations announced this year were viewers, CBS News’ two weekday newscasts would not still be deep in third place.
But Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports, is not about to give up hope that improvements in the content of “The Early Show” and “The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” will eventually bring in more viewers and revenue.
On the eve of the third anniversary of adding the news division to his portfolio, Mr. McManus talked with TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi about the challenges, the rewards and the complicated schedule his dual responsibilities impose on his days—and, sometimes, weekends.
The topics ranged from a status report and what political coverage did for CBS News’ profit this year, to the implications of the 12 Katie Couric-anchored Webcasts on big-event nights and why sharing CNN talent is a good thing.
TelevisionWeek: If this year were a chapter in a book you were writing, what would the title be?
Sean McManus: I would say maybe “The Beginning of the Resurgence.” I was looking at some of the notes I had gone over when I got my job almost exactly three years ago, and I was really, really clear with everybody that we had three what I thought were achievable goals that would take a number of years to achieve.
First, I wanted to really improve the quality of our broadcasts, specifically on “The Evening News” and “The Early Show.” No. 2, I wanted to keep the best existing correspondents and anchors we had and then go out and hire the best people who were available, both behind and in front of the camera. Third was to rebuild the prestige and the image of CBS News, which I knew was going to take a long time.
I think we have made a lot of progress in all three of those areas. We’re not anywhere near close to being at the goal yet, but we’re going in the right direction. In this business, when everything takes a long time to develop, as long as you’re going in the right direction and making progress every day, that’s where I think we are right now.
TVWeek: What’s going well, what’s going OK, and what’s still very much an uphill push?
Mr. McManus: What’s going well is the quality of all of our broadcasts. I’ll start out with “60 Minutes.” Almost two years ago I think we were, unbeknownst to a lot of people, facing a little bit of a crisis at “60 Minutes.” We had lost two of the iconic figures who really were the backbone of that broadcast: Ed Bradley and Mike Wallace. The job that [executive producer] Jeff Fager has done has been amazing. I think that show, from every standpoint, is stronger today than it’s been in the last decade, in terms of the relative quality of its ratings and its image in the marketplace and the quality of its stories.
“48 Hours” and “Sunday Morning” are just machines and continue to crank out the best programming and the best ratings in their time periods. Those are almost automatics. Every week you’re going to get a good show and a good number.
“Face the Nation” has had a resurgence, certainly in the positioning of the program. Bob Schieffer has emerged during this political season, in my opinion, as the dominant political figure in Washington.
I’d put the quality of “Evening News” also in that list of successes that I’m really, really pleased with. Tinkering needs to be done, but the quality is exactly where I want it to be.
In the “good” category, I think “The Early Show,” for the first time in a long time, is a good broadcast. I’m feeling very confident that on any given day they’re covering the news portion of the broadcast as well as anybody. It’s still a bit of a work in progress getting the anchors to all communicate well, but I would put that certainly in the category of working very well.
In terms of areas that need improvement, obviously we have two big areas where we have not made as much progress in. That’s the ratings for “The Evening News” and “The Early Show.” I’ve used the word “glacial” and used all the analogies with Tom Brokaw, about how long it takes, but the ratings for “The Evening News” are a little perplexing to me.
I think we’ve done such a good job and, through a lot of hard work on Katie Couric’s part and Rick Kaplan’s part, put out a product that people in the industry and viewers in general think is first-rate, and yet we haven’t moved the needle yet. I continue to believe that hopefully will happen with time.
TVWeek: Will the economic pressures that are affecting everybody affect your timetable or game plan for working on, or adding to, what you’re doing at CBS News?
Mr. McManus: Relatively speaking, I think we are extremely lean right now. Not lean to the point where we can’t cover the news, but extremely lean. There’s not a lot else that can be done here.
I think CBS News is going to make a profit next year. I think we’re run very efficiently. And I don’t see any dramatic changes in the way that we’re covering the news right now.
TVWeek: Is News making a profit this year?
Mr. McManus: Yes. Well, no, with politics, actually not, because when you factor in all of the political costs and the prime-time preemptions, I would have to say probably not. But it’s purely a reflection of the investment that we’ve made in politics.
TVWeek: What has the Couric-anchored Webcast on big nights produced as far as audience or plans for other applications?
Mr. McManus: The audience started very, very small, and relatively speaking the growth has been pretty impressive.
Like anything that has to do with new media, it received an inordinate amount of attention, based on the amount of people who watched it compared to the network. It allowed Katie to really showcase a lot of her talents that she can’t showcase at 6:30 in the evening. I think she did a good job.
We’re going to do more of them. The CNET team is incredibly excited about this opportunity. As you know, we sold, at the last minute, a six-figure sponsorship to Intel, who sponsored the last two or three of the Webcasts. They were extremely happy. CNET is in the marketplace right now and getting a pretty good reception from some companies who want to sponsor probably a series of six or more Webcasts, some of which will be around major events like the inauguration. Others will just, on a regular basis, perhaps just follow “The CBS Evening News” with some special Web programming.
We’re also, although no plans are announceable now, working with the CNET team—which I must say is about as creative and innovative a team as I’ve ever seen—we’re going to make some major changes in the CBS News Web site, which will probably be finalized and come to fruition at the end of the first quarter of 2009. It will be from a structural standpoint, a content standpoint and a look standpoint.
The current Web site has made a lot of progress. It’s making some money now for the company, but it’s going to be dramatically upgraded in every way in the first quarter of ’09.
TVWeek: We were talking about “60 Minutes.” You mentioned Anderson Cooper, who works first for CNN. You’ve got Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who works first for CNN, contributing to CBS News broadcasts. Talk about the balancing act between sharing someone else’s talent and converting it into a plus for you.
Mr. McManus: It’s already a plus. Anderson has brought a different perspective to “60 Minutes.” He’s a fresh face on “60 Minutes.” I don’t think there’s any downside whatsoever associated with the fact that he also works on CNN five nights a week. That’s purely an example of someone who, at the moment, is not available to work full-time at CBS News. The next best thing is to have him do a decent number of “60 Minutes” pieces.
And Sanjay, who is generally, I think, considered to be the best in his particular field—we don’t have enough airtime to satisfy Sanjay. We can’t give him hour specials and a series on Saturday morning like CNN can. So the choice is whether you use him for a select number of pieces a year or not use him because he’s on CNN. To me, it was an easy decision.
TVWeek: There was a time when people thought that you sort of wanted to step back and immerse yourself completely in the sports world again. Was that so? Has that passed?
Mr. McManus: If I’m really honest with myself, there was a period there when we were facing challenges that I thought were not insurmountable but that I thought were so difficult that it was getting very, very discouraging; and I looked at the success we’d had at CBS Sports and the fact that all the arrows at sports were really pointing up with respect to ratings and the events we had and it was much less challenging.
There were times in my most discouraging moments when I thought, “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice just to go back and worry only about sports?” But I could never let myself do that. I could never let myself down or let the division down. Whatever thoughts I had a year and a half ago in that direction have completely vanished.
I could see myself, if my boss lets me, doing this for an awful long time.
In what other job could I have dealings with the Cuban Ambassador to the U.N., Nick Faldo, Bob Schieffer, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Katie Couric, Phil Simms and Andy Rooney all in a single day? The variety of the challenges is extraordinary, and I don’t ever want to lose sight of that or take it for granted.