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The Sporting Life for CBS News

10/28/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Want to know what CBS News is likely to be like under new President Sean McManus?

Check out CBS Sports. In sharp contrast to the production pyrotechnics and the in-your-face yakkers at ESPN and Fox Sports, CBS Sports under McManus is more measured, more old-school—in short, a class act. That's the line on McManus, too: not a control freak, secure enough in his own skin to surround himself with competent people and let them do their jobs well. He's not an oversized personality like Dick Ebersol at NBC Sports or David Hill, who rules over Fox Sports and programming at DirecTV.

Ebersol and Hill may be like the guys that CBS capo di tutti capi Leslie Moonves plays poker with, but they are rarely the types he selects to run the various fiefdoms in his empire. McManus, who has worked for Moonves for nine years, is much more in step with other efficient executives at the company—such as CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group President Nancy Tellem—who have been trusted lieutenants for years.

The man McManus replaced last week, Andrew Heyward, never recovered from the debacle of Dan Rather's infamous report on George Bush's National Guard service. Like McManus, Heyward was also unfailingly loyal to Moonves. Some folks who worked with him during his decade atop CBS News think Heyward was too subservient to the boss and wasn't the strong advocate his threadbare division needed. Some say he was too much a product of an inbred culture to be a bold leader. Others prefer to remember Heyward's pre-presidential days as the highly regarded executive producer of 48 Hours and the CBS Evening News.

One inescapable fact: He was responsible for a flagship evening newscast and morning show that for too long have been ratings also-rans.

Now its McManus' turn, and he should learn from Heyward's mistakes. CBS spinmeisters skillfully crafted the McManus announcement, acknowledging his lack of newsroom bona fides but balancing that with a recitation of his TV-royalty pedigree.

There was the inevitable analogy to Roone Arledge, the ABC Sports president who took over the network's news division and was initially feared as a Philistine but transformed it into one of the best ever. The CBS script last week was helped along by the fact that McManus is the son of ABC Sports legend (and Arledge acolyte) Jim McKay; as a boy, he spent many an hour in the control room with Dad and his boss.

McManus says that Moonves opened the discussion that led to the promotion by asking him who his boyhood idol was. McManus answered: Arledge. “Les told me, 'You've been able to do everything your idol has done, except one thing,'” says McManus. “That was when I knew what was coming next.”

When I spoke with Moonves last week, he was effusive about his new hire.

“I could throw the Arledge analogy at you. Roone was a great talent magnet and, to a certain extent, Sean is too. But you don't have the superstars today like in Roone's era, where you spent a lot of money and hired Diane Sawyer and tried to lure Dan Rather away. That was really a different time.”

I don't think that means Moonves wouldn't write a multimillion-dollar check for Katie Couric; he just declines to talk about it.

Legend has it that when CBS Sports was bidding (successfully, and with Moonves' enthusiastic support) to regain pro football in 1998, McManus walked the sealed offer over to the NFL's Manhattan offices himself. On his way there, he stopped at St. Patrick's Cathedral to light a candle and say a prayer. On Nov. 7, on his way to his first day in the new job, he might want to think about making another visit to St. Pat's.

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bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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