New Ballgame at CBS News

Oct 30, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The morning after CBS Sports President Sean McManus was named president of CBS News and Sports, he strolled through the newsroom at CBS News headquarters on the west side of Manhattan and sat in on a couple of editorial meetings with troops who for months have been jittery about their futures.

Mr. McManus, who replaces Andrew Heyward as CBS News president, mostly listened during the meetings. Then, with a few casual questions and comments, according to attendees, he planted in many minds at CBS News the heady thought that they suddenly have the chance to join the rest of the network in the winner’s circle-and without giving up on international news. Mr. McManus had been following developments in Pakistan! He was interested in it!

“It was pretty clear this is not someone who has just been reading the sports pages. He asked the right questions. He said all the right things. He just could not have made a better impression,” CBS News’ Bob Schieffer said.

The old guard at “60 Minutes” was tellingly quiet. CBS News traditionally has been the most resistant to change of all of the TV news organizations, and the staff at “60 Minutes” has been particularly vocal when confronted with the prospect of doing things differently from the way it was done in the good old days. They exhibited no push-back to Mr. McManus whatsoever last week.

But winning over a new legion of viewers to lift CBS News out of third place may not be as simple as instilling hope in the beleaguered news staffers.

Mr. Schieffer, of course, is the “Face the Nation” moderator who has been interim “Evening News” anchor since Dan Rather stepped down in March in the wake of the bungled “60 Minutes II” story about President Bush’s Vietnam-era Texas Air National Guard service record-a story that became known as Memogate.

Stuck in Third Place

Indeed, it has been a rough year for CBS News. While CBS’s prime-time lineup continued to strengthen, “Evening News” lingered in third place among the network evening newscasts and CBS’s “The Early Show” sat firmly in third among morning network news shows. All the while, CBS Chairman Les Moonves frequently expressed frustration at not having gotten a new “Evening News” format or anchor configuration out of Mr. Heyward’s management ranks.

What’s more, there was a whiff of skepticism last week among the raves for Mr. McManus. Some floated the notion, most notably via the Public Eye blog on cbsnews.com, that because Mr. McManus, 50, is not a journalist with a capital J, CBS News was in peril of being marginalized.

Others wondered whether the change might lead to further involvement by entertainment guru Mr. Moonves in the news operation. And then there’s the point that two departments, sports and news, the latter of which is in what one network veteran described as “a recovery phase,” is a heavy load for one executive to manage.

However, if anyone is capable of rebuilding a once-great television franchise from the ground up, observers and insiders said that person is Mr. McManus, whose promotion elevates him to the rare position of heading both news and sports at a network. Only the late, legendary ABC Sports/News czar Roone Arledge has done the same.

For one thing, Mr. McManus, son of ABC sportscasting icon Jim McKay, has the deep-rooted respect of some of the industry’s most powerful veteran players, including Mr. Moonves.

Not to mention that at CBS Sports he has already succeeded at turning around a troubled network division. In his time at its helm, Mr. McManus has rebuilt CBS Sports into a profitable division after the network lost the television rights to National Football League games to Fox Sports in 1993.

In addition, he’s a guy known for a cool head and making the most of the resources at hand.

Many powerful people have known Mr. McManus since childhood, and they agree he’s got the goods to rally CBS News. They’ve watched his transformation into a seasoned executive from a charming and well-mannered kid hanging around his legendary dad and Mr. Arledge in ABC Sports control rooms and larger-than-life venues, such as the fateful Munich Olympics in 1972.

Don Ohlmeyer, who hired Mr. McManus from under his father’s and Mr. Arledge’s shadows to become a young sports programming executive at NBC Sports, recalled: “He basically knocked my socks off. He was a very quick study-and that’s a phrase that is thrown around too loosely.”

“He’s smart and has the respect of everyone in the industry,” said Fox Sports Television Group Chairman and CEO David Hill, who jump-started Fox Sports by snatching the NFL from CBS in 1993.

Mr. Hill watched Mr. McManus take over CBS Sports in 1996 and methodically rebuild what was “an absolute friggin’ joke” into a division that is profitable despite rising sports license fees, Mr. Hill said.

Mr. McManus also led CBS Sports aggressively onto the Internet-a platform CBS News only recently decided to pump up.

Now Mr. McManus has a well-oiled, rights-rich CBS Sports machine. He has the NFL’s AFC package-which he scooped up in 1998 after NBC Sports called a timeout from football-locked up tight for several more years. And he is prepared to entrust day-to-day management to his carefully assembled team of executives headed by Tony Petitti, who is expected to be promoted this week to executive VP of sports.

Barry Frank, the former ABC Sports producer who is now the head of the TV and film division at International Management Group, has seen his role in Mr. McManus’ life change from grown-up to boss to matchmaker, close friend and golf partner. Mr. McManus took up golf fairly recently but says he loves it in spite of not having mastered it. He said he has a 17 handicap “that’s not going down anytime soon.”

When frustration dogs Mr. McManus on the links, Mr. Frank said, “The words get shorter. He might smack the club on the ground. He doesn’t fly off the handle.”

Mr. Frank said he likewise expects Mr. McManus to take a measured approach to CBS News.

“He won’t do anything precipitous,” Mr. Frank said. “He’s not going to make change for change’s sake.”

But he will work with and augment the talent he knows is in place at CBS News.

“I want CBS News to be the place where the best news talent wants to work,” Mr. McManus said last week. It’s the same approach he used at CBS Sports, where he turned sportscaster Jim Nantz, the all-American boy, into the voice and face of CBS Sports.

Mr. McManus believes in evening newscasts and signature voices and faces, a point on which he appears to differ slightly with his boss, Mr. Moonves. Asked last week whether he believes a flagship voice and face are essential to a news division, Mr. Moonves said, “Not necessarily. It you can have one, that’s great. Sometimes you play the hand you’re dealt.”

Still, insiders expect Mr. Moonves to afford Mr. McManus the room to execute his own vision of CBS News.

“Les feels very strongly about what he thinks but he also, if he respects your opinion, doesn’t feel like he’s got to win every time just to say he won,” Mr. Ohlmeyer said.

While Mr. McManus spends the next weeks and months focusing on “Evening News” and “The Early Show,” his counterparts at ABC News and NBC News are experiencing their own transitions. ABC News has yet to announce who will succeed the late Peter Jennings on the anchor desk of “World News Tonight,” and NBC News is being run by interim President Steve Capus after Neal Shapiro left the network in early September.

Mr. McManus said he is not ready to comment on the competition. He did admit, however: “I don’t like to be No. 3.”

Those who know him say he’s likely to do whatever it takes to improve that position.

Mr. Frank knows Mr. McManus as a role model of a family man who lives in Connecticut and has an apartment in New York, where he tries not to stay more than one night a week.

That’s bound to change. Said one person who has worked closely with Mr. McManus at CBS Sports: “That will probably gr
ow to two nights.”