Leslie Moonves just made one of the most important decisions of his career. The only question is whether he made it too late.
Fact is, Andrew Heyward should have been replaced as the head of CBS News several years ago, long before the political fallout from Memogate tainted his tenure. Despite many positive attributes — he’s whip-smart, ingratiating and a hard worker — Heyward has never really been the right person for the job.
That’s because Heyward is the consummate CBS News insider. What the division has badly needed for years is a leader from the outside who can come in and knock some sense into an organization that’s been all but crippled by staffers more concerned with protecting decades-old fiefdoms than kicking the competition’s butt.
One CBS News insider who knows Heyward said the exec understood the need for change but was “paralyzed” by his longstanding relationships with so many people at the network.
“It’s hard to be creative when you’re protecting so many of the entrenched franchises,” the staffer said. “It’s like quicksand. You never get an even footing to do” what needs to be done.
That’s why bringing in Sean McManus makes so much sense.
The longtime CBS Sports leader is pretty much an outsider when it comes to the culture of CBS News. He knows the players, but he’s not beholden to any of them.
What’s more, McManus has proven his chops as both a broadcaster and a businessman. He’s brought big names to CBS Sports and negotiated a series of blockbuster rights deals — skills that will come in handy if the Eye is to lure top talent away from other nets.
Yet McManus also is someone with a respect for legacy and tradition. His father, after all, is Jim McKay — the iconic ABC Sports broadcaster who became a star under the watch of Roone Arledge, the last person to run a network news and sports division simultaneously.
Arledge situation similar
Strikingly, McManus finds himself facing a situation not unlike that Arledge found himself in when he was asked to take over ABC News in 1977. Like the Alphabet of yesteryear, CBS News circa 2005 is mired in third, plagued by infighting and lacking major star power.
In his memoirs, Arledge recalled that when he took charge of ABC News, many staffers were unconcerned with being dead last in the ratings. To them, winning somehow meant selling out journalistic principles. It’s a philosophy that seems to be shared by many CBS News staffers.
“We’ve got a lot of ghost whisperers around here,” one division insider said, referring to those inside the division who seem to “be clinging to the underwear of Edward R. Murrow.”
Others say the legacy of Murrow et al. isn’t the issue at all. Instead, it’s the petty politics and turf wars that inevitably set in at any organization in which a 20-year veteran of the company can still be considered a newbie.
One exec laments the “CBS Evening News” reporters who still “piss and moan” if they’re asked to file a report for “The Early Show.”
Another sign of the trouble at CBS News is the frequency with which staffers feel compelled to leak internal memos and discussions to outside journos — something that doesn’t happen in any other part of the Moonves empire.
As if the political situation weren’t bad enough, the CBS News that McManus inherits is also facing the same monumental truth rivals at ABC and NBC are confronting: For millions of Americans, broadcast news as it’s existed for the past 50 years has simply become irrelevant.
Even if he can grab control of the beast that is CBS News and give it the massive shaking up it needs, McManus still has to figure out how to compete in a media universe filled with literally thousands of news sources, from cable behemoths like Fox News Channel to snarky insta-news Web sites like Sploid.com. He’ll also need Moonves to step up and give him the financial resources needed to attract new talent and invest in new technologies.
Good night, and good luck, indeed.