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20 Questions for CBS News' Chief

CBS News Chief Sean McManus discusses the future's newsroom, citizen media, and the failure of pre-Iraq media.
 
 
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Sean McManus was named president, CBS News, in October 2005. For the past decade, he has also been the head of CBS Sports. McManus is only the second person ever to lead simultaneously both the news and sports divisions of an American television network. The late Roone Arledge, who held both positions at ABC in the late 1970s and '80s, was the first.

During his nine-year tenure as president of the sports division, CBS became a leader in network sports. McManus now hopes to duplicate that success in news, where CBS, with a few exceptions, has long languished in the ratings.

McManus is the son of legendary sports broadcaster Jim McKay. He was graduated cum laude from Duke University in 1977 with a degree in English and history, and began his broadcast career as a production assistant and associate producer at ABC Sports later that same year -- just as Arledge became head of ABC News.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of question-and-answer sessions between Rory O'Connor and leading American media executives. Previous conversations have featured CNN chief Jonathan Klein, Fox News head John Moody, Time magazine editor Richard Stengel, and others.

ROC: Is it true you are the living reincarnation of Roone Arledge?

SM: If I can somehow approach the accomplishments Roone had in news -- because I feel very good about the sports side -- if I can somehow come within spitting distance, I will consider myself a big success. But the kind of opportunities he had to really revolutionize the industry unfortunately doesn't exist today. Let's face it, with Fox, CNN, and CNBC, it's a lot harder to distinguish yourself today, especially when we are limited to 22 minutes a night of news coverage. It's really hard. It makes it more challenging, and when you do something big and important, it stands out even more.

You've come from sports and added news to your brief -- are the skill sets similar?

The biggest surprise and disappointment I got coming to news was when someone told me on the first day I got the job that I couldn't buy exclusive rights to the elections -- because we were able to buy the Final Four and the Super Bowl and the Masters, but we couldn't buy the elections! That's the biggest difference -- you are competing on every story that you do, not only with two other networks, but also three or four very viable cable networks. That's a huge difference. Second, I can tell you today what time we're kicking off the Super Bowl -- which we're doing on February 4th, at 6:27 approximately -- but nobody can tell you when the next crisis or the next big news story is going to happen. So it's much more relentless, much more day-to-day, much more always being on your toes and being afraid of missing something frankly, of not being in position to do a story. My biggest fear now when the phone rings is that we're not in position to cover the story.

But there are also a lot of similarities. The same basic programming skills -- good story-telling, good reporting, identifying good on-air broadcasters and developing them … you know, there is the next Bob Schieffer out there somewhere, there is the next Mike Wallace, although both of those gentlemen are difficult to replace. There is not the next Ed Bradley, but there is someone who can have a similar impact on the industry. It's just finding and developing him or her -- that's one of the good and toughest challenges of this job.

What are your top three challenges today in CBS News?

I'm not at all concerned or focused on the ratings. In many ways, the media has set up a set of expectations that we never had at CBS News. We said the day we hired Katie Couric, it's not going to happen overnight. We're going to get an initial surge, then it's probably going to fall back to what it was, and then it's going to hopefully grow over months and years. You know, no new anchors come in and increase ratings. Katie's under way more scrutiny, way more pressure, and we're quite patient. We have a long-term deal with Katie.

Listen, do I want to be No. 3? Absolutely not. Do we hate being No. 3? Can't stand it. It's a terrible feeling, but it's where we're expected to be. It's just going to take time. To get people to physically change their channel if you are an ABC or NBC viewer, it's really hard to do, harder than anybody understands. And when you have the kind of built-in disadvantage of roughly around a 10 to 12 percent disadvantage of your national lead in -- you know, we don't have Oprah, we don't have Wheel of Fortune, we don't have some of the major markets … you know, in some ways Katie is ten yards behind the start line when we come on the air at 6:30. Dan Rather used to say, "Give me Oprah before me, and give me Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy after me, and I'll be No. 1 also." And I feel the same way about Katie. You give us Oprah, and our big stations around the country leading into our local news, and she would be a lot better in her ratings than she is now. But that's been true for many years.

Another thing that's been true for a long time is an overall decline in viewers in the industry -- not just at CBS news. What can you do to counter this and what is your prognosis? Do you see it continuing to decrease?

I think it's going to level off at some point. Listen, for all the decline people talk about, on any given night there are 25 million people watching one of the three of us. That's a big audience. Compare that to a million viewers, tops, that are watching most cable programs, it's a big, big audience. In a given week, there are 60 million people that watch one of the three of us, at some point, so declining as it is, it's still a very significant and sellable audience.

Sure.

I think eventually it's going to reach a level where it won't decline anymore. I don't know if that's in a year from now, or two years from now, but I know it's still a big audience and a big responsibility. I am not sure how or when we're going to grow that audience in the future. That's why we said from day one, our biggest priority is getting a larger share of the existing audience. If we gain more in the future by doing some new things, that's great. But what we've also found is that when you try new things, you have a tendency to potentially alienate more than we even thought of your traditional news viewers. You know, we did some of that. We actually got criticized for it, when prior to it people said, 'You know, you gotta try new things -- some will work, some won't.' So we tried the 'Free Speech' segment, which whether you like it or not was a pretty new and different idea. Then we got a lot of people talking, saying, "How could they do 'Free Speech,' oh my gosh, they're messing with the Evening News format. But if we weren't going to mess with it a little bit, why would we hire Katie?

That was one of my questions. Isn't it ironic that the show has actually gotten smoother and better of late?

(interrupts): And more traditional also.

And more traditional … which was my point, that it has dropped some of the experiments.

It's a good point. You know, I'll say this. One of our biggest challenges going forward is to have the guts to do some of the things that we did initially -- many of which I think worked -- to have the guts to try those things in the future, when there is so much pressure on us to do a traditional newscast. So we are going to do some news things in the future. I have no idea what they are, but first we wanted to --we needed to -- establish that we could cover the hard news as well as anybody. Which I think we've done, we have established that. The question is how many risks we want to take in the future. And I don't know the answer to that question. But that's a real challenge for us. Because if all three of us do the exact same newscast two years from now, we're never going to get any new viewers.

Now what is the format for doing enough of the traditional stuff so that you please your core audience, while maybe trying some new things to bring some new people in? It's going to be really tough. And somebody has got to have the courage to do that. We had the courage initially; we kind of pulled back a little bit, but we'll step out again, I think. She doesn't want to do the same telecast as everybody else is doing and I applaud her for that.

I've noticed that when I asked you to name your top three challenges, you started and ended with the Evening News.

Well that's all one challenge. I'm looking at the Evening News as all one challenge -- that's not all three. The Evening News is the biggest challenge, to continue that growth. No. 2 is the Early Show. You know, I had lunch with Walter Cronkite recently, and he reminded me that when he came to New York in the early '50s and did the Early Show, we were No. 3 then. "Walter," I said, "it has been 57 years and we're still No. 3." We have literally been No. 3 since the 1950s! So there's great opportunity there. There is a lot of revenue there. There is more revenue in the morning, potential revenue for us, than any other day part. So even a small up-tick in our Early Show ratings can be very profitable. So that would definitely be the No. 2 priority. Number three is continuing with -- which I think we've been really successful in doing -- continuing the transition of 60 Minutes. How do you make the transition? On the single most important news magazine, and in some ways, the single most important show in the history of news, how do you make that transition? We've got Scott Pelley and Bob Simon doing more stories now, because Ed Bradley's untimely demise does open up opportunities. And Steve Kroft, same thing, Steve Kroft is doing more. And that's kind of the next generation. And the next generation below that are Anderson Cooper and Lara Logan and Katie Couric -- and I'm speaking generational in terms of their experience on 60 Minutes, not their age. So when you look at the traditional guys that are still there, the kind of middle guys, you know, Steve and Bob and Scott, and now the new people, I feel really good about that show. But we cannot afford to let that show diminish either in terms of stature or quality or audience. And I think we are well on the way. So those are the three. And the fourth call is just whatever it takes to have people really believe in their hearts that we are the best news organization in America. I think a lot of people believe that, but I want more people to believe it. And I want to prove it on a week-by-week basis.

What about the eroding profitability of the network news divisions in general and yours in particular? I would imagine you spent a fortune already on Katie and promotion of the changes of the Evening News; 60 Minutes has got to be an expensive show; the up-front advertising environment was tough … How is the news division doing in comparison to last year, is it up or down? How long do you have to get the profit up? There must be a lot of pressure on you.

Well, there is now more pressure on CBS News than there is on CBS Sports or CBS Entertainment. There is always pressure in every day part at every network. I would certainly not deny that. But we will make more money in CBS News next year than we made this year. It's a profitable division.

You'll make more money this year?

More next year -- 2007 -- on a pure profit basis, than we will in 2006. The Katie investment in many ways -- just in our demographic increases in her show and the excitement around her -- has already paid off the first year, quite frankly. Plus the fact that she's going to be doing 60 Minutes and primetime specials … I feel very good about that investment. And I feel good about CBS News being increasingly more profitable in the coming years. We are going to be a major profit contributor to the CBS Corporation. Not as major as I'm sure my bosses would like, but we're not losing money, we are making money. And to make money and still fulfill your obligations to our affiliates and our viewers to provide first class news coverage is pretty good. But I certainly don't anticipate running CBS News at a loss while I have this job -- nor does my boss Mr. Moonves.

Are you looking at new potential revenue sources?

Well the digital media is growing very quickly -- but it is a small base from which to grow. Absolutely, CBS.com is going to be increasingly more profitable. Our deal with Yahoo for 60 Minutes will bring in some more revenue. And I think other partnership deals that we are going to do, like the one we have with YouTube, will start to bring in revenue. It is not what I would call significant revenue right now, but if it keeps growing as it has been, it will be in two or three years. So absolutely, that's a very important part of our strategy is to make more money from digital media. Absolutely.

Your boss Les Moonves once famously and provocatively said that the CBS Evening News should be somewhere between The Naked News and two boring people sitting behind a desk." Obviously he was joking, but he was also making a point. Fortune magazine later interpreted Moonves' remark to mean that network news divisions have to "get younger, prettier, and webbier." What did his comment mean to you?

It meant that he didn't want to be locked into tradition just for tradition's sake. Tradition in the best sense of the word -- Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace? Great, I love that. Tradition for the sake of being traditional? Throw it out the window! We are not going to get demonstrably younger on broadcast news television; it's not going to happen. I mean 60 Minutes can get younger if we do some younger stories, but we are not going to drastically decrease the demographic on 60 Minutes, Sunday Morning, Evening News, the Early Show. We can make some progress but the demographic is going to be an older demographic. So how can we sell that more effectively and get more of that demographic to watch us? That's really the challenge.

Digital is a whole other story. I mean, you do get younger people on digital media -- whether it's the Internet, whether it's the iPod, or whether it's cell phones-- a lot of effort and a lot of resources go against that. You know we've announced our aggressive cell phone deal recently. We've got some great new additions on our websites; we've announced our new YouTube deal. That's great opportunity. But our focus is not on getting a lot more young people to watch Evening News. If it were realistic we would be doing it. If my goal was to drastically lower the age of our news viewers, I would be a frustrated news executive. I'd much rather focus on the viewers that are already out there and try to get more of them to watch my show, because there are plenty of them out there.

How can you get younger on digital and not on broadcast?

By doing a different news product, by letting people select the news that they want to see that you can never see on the Evening News or any other program. Doing an exclusive video, and maybe doing more entertainment stuff, more fun videos. You know, you can put 100 videos on your website, and 25 of them can be whatever you want to do. You can't do that on the Evening News, you don't have the time. We've talked about having a couple of college kids doing some news reporting on the website. So there are many ways to make the news. The fact that you can select what you want to see on the Internet is half the battle, because young kids -- I mean young people, including young adults -- may not want to watch the Evening News and have me decide, or have my executive producer decide, what's going to be on there. They want to look at the websites -- OK, I've got Iraq, I've got Tim Johnson's stroke, I've got the Foley scandal, and I've got Britney Spears and I've got the sports, here's what I want to focus on. You can do that, but you can't do that on the Evening News.

Different products?

Very different products, and it's a product that is customized for your viewer. Which, you know, a newscast can never be …

So it's selection, it's personalizing?

Yeah exactly, and it's unique coverage only to that site.

Do you see the web becoming dominant over broadcast, and if so when?

Not in my professional lifetime. Broadcast television is still overwhelmingly dominant in every aspect. Revenue, viewership, the amount of attention it brings … it is so far and away more dominant and will be for the perceivable future, for four or five years. After that I don't know. When your homepage is the same as your television screen that will have an impact; but the vast majority of the people will still get their news from network television, their sports from network television, their entertainment from network television… and the Web is not going to pass that for many, many years to come. Anyway, that's my opinion, and I could be wrong.

Do you think your opinion is shared among your peers?

I think so, yeah. I don't want to minimize the importance of digital media; it is in every way as important as network television because there is much more growth. There is no comparison between the growth of digital media and television -- way, way more growth -- but it has to have exponential growth in both viewers and revenue to be as impactful. Now I'm speaking as a person who works at network television, and if you ask someone from Yahoo, they may have a different perspective. But I just think that the main priority now, my priority, is on the network side of it -- even knowing that the biggest opportunity is on the digital side.

What about user-generated content? As you know, a lot of people are getting rich from it … And some respected news organizations, such as the BBC for example, have begun embracing it of late.

I'm not averse to it. Although from a news standpoint, we do have to have some control because we have a responsibility, if something is going out on our website or our network, that it is credible and that it is authentic. It's tough to generalize, because on CBS News or on CBS.com, you wouldn't want hard-core pornography, so you would probably want to filter that off. It's just the degree of what you want to filter. And that's not an effort to censor, it's just that if it is our website, there are certain things that I think we have the right to keep off our website. Blatantly false and damaging rumors about people that you find on blogs a lot, I wouldn't want on CBS.com.

What about citizen journalism?

Fine, if it accurate and if it is fair. Again I'm not sure how much of a market there is for that in news, but we could find out. I'm not opposed to that at all. If a college kid in 2008 wanted to cover Hillary Clinton's campaign with a little digital camera, I would be very open to that idea. Get his idea, get his perception, talk to his pals -- love that. No reason not to do that, so I'm very open to that kind of stuff. It's just a question of how much of that has value in the long term; and I don't know the answer to that … Listen, I think, the guys at YouTube made a pretty nice little living and a pretty nice score by letting people put stuff up. Great concept. So I'm not averse to doing it within our standards, which might be a little different at CBS.com than it would be YouTube.

Well, I'd hope so!

I wouldn't mind CBS News being as profitable, however, as potentially YouTube is.

It sounds to me that you are kind of in the middle, in the sense that you are not averse to it, but you aren't exactly embracing it.

I just want to be responsible. That's all. And I want to move in this case a little bit more slowly just because there's probably more at stake for a network division than there is for a couple of entrepreneurs.

Just one final question, if I may. As you know there has been tremendous controversy about the coverage to the run up to the war in Iraq, and the subsequent occupation. The New York Times , the Washington Post and all three network news heads said the mainstream media could have and should have done better. So my question is, when the next war comes, how do you see the coverage at CBS News differing from the run up to the war in Iraq, where there just seem to be so much cheerleading, and there were very few opposition voices that found their way onto any network? Not looking back, but looking forward, will you change anything? How can we do better?

We can do better by digger harder and asking harder questions. It's tough during a war, I think philosophically and emotionally, to be negative, to separate any negativity about the policy from the soldiers who are fighting the war. That's very difficult thing. You want to make sure that you are completely and totally supportive of the United States of America and our troops, while still being objective and honest and probing with respect to the justification and philosophy of the war and how successful that war is. But let's remember that during the initial stages of the Iraqi war, everybody from the military, from the government, from the media believed that it was a big success because it WAS a big success. The issue with the war on Iraq was not the invasion and the toppling of Saddam -- that all went pretty darn well. What happen was, after that, it didn't go so well …

Sure, but what I'm talking about is looking at the reasons given for going to war. There were a lot of people out there -- I was one of them -- who did question those reasons at the time, but they were not given voice on CBS, NBC, ABC, or in the New York Times , or Washington Post . And their patriotism was questioned in some places.

Good question. Again, not having been involved in the newsroom, I can't really comment on what happened. But to go forward, I would think that because of what happened, and because of a lot of the intelligence that didn't turn out to be true, that the media may be more questioning. But I don't remember why it wasn't questioned enough or how much it wasn't questioned, because I wasn't here. So I'm a little uncomfortable talking about that, except to say that we would ask all of our reporters to dig as deep as they possibly can and take nothing for granted.

Well, if you want to support the United States and the troops, isn't it best to ask questions before they are put in harm's way?

Yeah, absolutely. I can't disagree with that.

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.

 
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