12 to Watch: Sean McManus

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Sean McManus kids no one, least of all himself. Reinvigorating CBS News, an also-ran from “Early Show” to “Evening News,” is neither a quick-fix nor a do-it-himself proposition.

He is going to be in the spotlight, on the receiving end of microscopic scrutiny and enduring choruses of second-guessing and gratuitous advice long after Katie Couric reveals whether she will leave NBC for CBS.

Mr. McManus declines to address directly the topic of whether Ms. Couric will make a leap to CBS News after her $14 million-a-year contract at NBC News ends in May.

However, his definition of an anchor will come as a relief to those who had taken way too seriously CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ jokes about seeing naked ladies at the same “CBS Evening News” anchor desk once occupied by Dan Rather.

“Whoever sits in the anchor chair at the ‘Evening News’ is just one of the many issues we’re facing, although it’s perhaps the biggest one. Whoever sits in that chair is as much a personification of everything that CBS News presents as any entity in this entire company,” Mr. McManus said. “It is so emblematic of what your division stands for that you really have to make sure you make the right decision.”

The compact and quiet Mr. McManus-“Don’t get me started,” he says when asked to comment on competitors-is a decisive, comfortable and, above all, competitive leader who has trod these waters before.

He took over CBS Sports in 1996, after it had been stripped of its most powerful franchise when Fox intercepted the broadcast rights to the National Football League’s NFC in 1993. In his own civil yet unambiguously competitive way, he rebuilt CBS Sports into the dominant broadcast network sports division (getting back into the football game in 1998) with a potent Internet component, earning the respect and confidence of Mr. Moonves in the process.

Two months into his dual duties as the chief executive of CBS’s news and sports divisions, he finds himself again taking a long view and suggesting that observers do the same.

“We have a game plan for CBS News that won’t completely come to fruition, probably, until the 2008 elections. I don’t mean to imply that we’re going to avoid making a lot of changes and improve ourselves throughout the coming year and the year after that. But I think to make the kind of changes that we want and to really make CBS News the best news division in the country in every way probably will take a number of years,” he said.

At the heart of the game plan: acknowledging that “our core audience is going to remain an older audience, and if we are the vehicle by which they are getting their news, it makes sense to program and produce the news more for that audience than for a younger audience.”

“Having said that, the Internet and new media initiatives we have at CBS News I think is a great opportunity to allow younger viewers and consumers to get their news from CBS News,” he said.

Mr. McManus cited “60 Minutes” this season and “48 Hours: Mystery” as proof that the quest for younger demographics and credibility can coexist. “So it’s not as if we’re ignoring the younger viewer. We’re certainly trying to appeal to them, without ignoring the fact that our core audience is an older audience,” he said.

And with Bob Schieffer as the interim anchor for the last 10-plus months, “Evening News” has gained more than 1 million viewers and has begun threatening ABC’s “World News Tonight” in the demographic race.

Still, for all the attention on “Evening News,” Mr. McManus said, “The early morning, both creatively and financially, presents the greatest opportunity for us, but, again, it’s not a short-term project. To get where I really would like to be will take a number of years. But with respect to ratings and revenue potential, it certainly presents the greatest growth opportunity.”

At A Glance

Title: President of CBS News and CBS Sports

How long in current position: Sports, since 1996; news, since November 2005

Year of birth: 1955

Place of birth: New York

What to watch for: Change and more change

Who knew? “Given the choice of attending a great sporting event or spending time with my family watching it at home, I probably would choose the latter, the exception being the Masters and the Final Four,” Mr. McManus said. “Whenever I do watch a sporting event on television, I’m watching it much more as a television production, trying to analyze what’s being done well and what could be done better, as opposed to just watching it as a sporting event [and] rooting for one team or another.”