A New Game Plan
CBS Sports' prez has a winning strategy for CBS News
As a boy, Sean McManus
stood nearby as his sportscaster father, Jim McKay
, reported live on the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. ABC Sports president Roone Arledge
was overseeing the network's extraordinary coverage and would eventually take over the network's news division, building it into an industry leader. So it was hard not to refer to Arledge when McManus, president of CBS Sports since 1996, added CBS News to his portfolio. He takes over for Andrew Heyward
on Nov. 7. The Biz recently spoke to McManus about the challenges he faces in his new job.
TVGuide.com: You must be pleased with the comparisons to Roone Arledge, especially because he and your father put ABC News on the map with the Munich coverage.
Sean McManus: The biggest event in my father's professional career happened to be a news event, not a sports event, and I was lucky enough to spend that entire period in the studio 10 feet from him, or in the control room 10 feet from Roone Arledge. So I'd like to think that through osmosis something rubbed off on me that day and inspired a love of news.
TVGuide.com: What did your father say when he heard that you were named president of CBS News?
McManus: He was speechless for about a minute, as was my mother. I talked to them the day after, and I don't think it had sunk in, because Roone was such an important part of our family and their lives. I think it was difficult for them to grasp what was happening. There is really the most serendipitous connection between his career and Roone's career and my career — it was almost too much for them to take. It was emotional.
TVGuide.com: So what will the biggest priority be at your new job?
McManus: First, to think about what the format of the CBS Evening News should be. I'm not as concerned by what it's going to look like six months from now as by how it will look six years from now. I'm going to approach it aggressively, but I'd rather take my time and not make a mistake. I don't know if it's going to be one anchor, multiple anchors or an ensemble cast. I've thought a lot about it but don't have any answers at the moment.
Second, nurturing and attracting the best talent — something I think I've done pretty well at CBS Sports — people who weren't here when I got here [include] Dick Enberg, Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms. I'd like to do the same thing at CBS News so that it's the place where the best talent wants to work. I want to invigorate the place. I'm not happy about being in third place in anything in life, and the fact that the CBS Evening News is in third place and The Early Show is in third place does not make me happy.... Ratings in news move glacially, but I have to believe that if we put on a better product in those time periods, then more people will watch.
TVGuide.com: Isn't it going to be hard to turn the morning and evening news shows when the local CBS TV stations continue to be weak in many major cities?
McManus: I'm not going to take that as an excuse for not improving the ratings. It's an issue, certainly. But there is a great improvement in our owned and operated stations primarily because we're doing so well in prime time. I'm hoping that success will be translated down into the news program.
TVGuide.com: You came into CBS Sports with a reputation for being a good negotiator. But when you got there, they give you a checkbook to attract major sporting events. Is that going to be the case at CBS News?
McManus: I was only given a checkbook to consummate deals that were going to be fiscally responsible for CBS. I would not have been given a checkbook if I were going to do a deal for the NFL that was going to lose a lot of money and not be good for the network. We made money on the first eight-year NFL deal, which we said we were going to do. Yes, I will be given the resources, but I will get them assuming I'm going to get a return on my investment. If I'm going to spend money on the CBS Evening News, I'm going to spend money so the ratings will increase and generate more revenue. I also have not been told to slash budgets or cut head count. I was hired to build upon the good foundation and improve the division. Having said that, the news division is profitable now and will hopefully be more profitable in the future.
TVGuide.com: However, when you pursue the National Football League and the NCAA basketball tournament, they are going to get predictably good ratings. News talent moving from one network to another is not always a sure thing.
McManus: No. But I'll point to Roone Arledge. At ABC he was nowhere on Sunday morning, and he hired someone who had been put out to pasture, David Brinkley, and put him with George Will, Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson and created the most successful Sunday-morning show on the air. He took an 11:30 time period, took a man named Ted Koppel, who was not a star, and made him a star, and made Nightline an institution. He took Barbara Walters and put her on 20/20 and made it an enormous hit. He took Peter Jennings and made him a star on World News Tonight. He got Diane Sawyer for Primetime Live and for specials. If you get the right talent and put them on the right programs, you'll create hits. You're right — the difference between sports and news is that with sports you can go out and buy ratings. You can't do that in news because there is no proprietary coverage. The only thing that distinguishes you is your on-air coverage and you're on-air talent. So if you do a good job in both of those, you can maintain and improve upon an already good division. It's doable. It's not easy.
TVGuide.com: So when you have to cut away from a major sporting event to cover breaking news, whom are you going to yell at?
McManus: I'm going to yell at myself.
TVGuide.com: I set that one up for you.
McManus: The good thing is that we've had countless examples of big news stories happening during sporting events. The biggest one, obviously, was when the war in Iraq started at just about the same hour as the 2003 NCAA basketball tournament. Katrina happened during the U.S. Open. The transition and coordination has been seamless between news and sports. It should be even more seamless now that one guy is in control of both.
TVGuide.com: I know that CBS News execs have said that CBSNews.com is the future when it comes to 24-hour news at the network. But are you ruling out any discussion about a partnership with CNN?
McManus: We're not ruling anything out. Forging a relationship with CNN is not on my list of things to do right now. But I'm not saying no to anything. I'm keeping a very open mind. I don't know a logical way right now [to make that work], but I am open to listening.
TVGuide.com: What are your own news-viewing habits?
McManus: Since I had my first discussion with [CBS chairman] Leslie Moonves a month ago, I watch all three of the evening newscasts very carefully every night.... But I will almost always watch parts of Keith Olbermann's show, Countdown. I love Hardball with Chris Matthews. I watch Hannity & Colmes because of the diversity of political opinion expressed there. I will see who Larry King has on. I will always check what Greta Van Susteren has on, and if it's a story on Natalee Holloway, I immediately turn it off. I used to love Capital Report. I really enjoy watching news and the different ways they cover news events — just as I try to watch everything that ABC Sports, NBC Sports and Fox Sports does. I'm going to watch a lot of our competition and try to learn from them.