Anchor on Eye’s wish list

Net still on the lookout for top talent

CBS execs still refuse to comment on talk that Katie Couric is in line to lead the “CBS Evening News,” but one thing’s almost certain: The broadcast’s next anchor won’t come from inside the network.

In his first Television Critics Assn. press tour appearance since landing the top CBS News gig, Sean McManus told reporters Wednesday that the net lacked a star ready to serve as a chief anchor.

“I don’t care where the person comes from as long as it’s the best person in that chair,” he said. “I’m not sure we have anyone right now that has all of the qualifications an anchor should have.”

That includes chief White House correspondent John Roberts, who at one point was being groomed for the job.

Without naming Couric, McManus said he has a small list of candidates in mind, as well as a timeline in place to name the anchor — but declined to elaborate on either.

Encouraged by recent ratings growth, McManus said he’s also not in a rush to replace current anchor Bob Schieffer, who’s in place to stick with the show for at least the next year.

“Bob will be anchor for as long as I need him to,” McManus said. “He’s not a place holder — he’s growing our audience.”

CBS’ portion of the tour kicked off with a mostly sunny report card of the net’s primetime performance from Eye Entertainment exec Nina Tassler.

But addressing one trouble spot, Tassler said the net was taking a hard look at whether to bring the Sunday movie franchise back next season. Beyond the Hallmark Hall of Fame fare and a few other projects, the telepics have not performed well in recent years.

“We’re certainly looking at Sunday night with a tremendous amount of scrutiny,” she said. “We’re kind of disappointed with how some movies have done.”

That includes “Pope John Paul II,” which posted low returns and baffled net execs, she said. Tassler also said the Eye currently isn’t developing any more B-movie concepts like “Spring Break Shark Attack.”

Meanwhile, Tassler said CBS had no plans for a fourth “CSI.” She also responded to criticism that the net’s sked remains too procedural-heavy by pointing to the success of newcomer “Criminal Minds,” as well as the big gains by “NCIS,” which she called “the surprise hit of the year.”

Still, pointing to the Tuesday night premiere of “Love Monkey,” Tassler stressed that the net is also looking to develop different forms of programming.

“This year in development, I can tell you that we certainly concentrated on thinking outside the box, trying new genres, experimenting with new kinds of storytelling,” she said. “I think you’re going to see a pretty interesting change next season in development.”

In regard to new technologies and program platforms, Tassler echoed her counterparts at the other networks in noting that things “are moving at breakneck speed across the industry” and that it’s too soon to tell where things will land.

“We see this as an opportunity to enhance the network’s marketing power and distribution so that more people see our hit shows,” Tassler said of deals such as the net’s pact with Google and its recent holiday week arrangement with Yahoo!.

As for McManus, who took over as CBS News president (while maintaining the CBS Sports presidency) in November, the exec said he believes that the department’s morale has returned and that black eyes such as the Memogate flap are in the past.

“CBS News has learned a lot of lessons with what happened over the last year and a half,” he said. “There’s an enormously competitive spirit now that being in third place is not acceptable … We want to be the No. 1 news organization in America.”

McManus said he plans to make an announcement in the coming months that revolves around giving the network’s correspondents a much more visible role on-air.

“Everyone’s being evaluated, and the best are going to rise to the top,” he said.

Someone who’s job won’t be changing is new CBS Evening News exec producer Rome Hartman. McManus said Hartman will remain with the show even after an anchor is chosen.

As for the evening newscast itself, McManus said the network has pulled back on early noise that it would attempt to come up with an entirely new format. Following Dan Rather’s departure last year, several radical ideas were rumored to be in play — including a morning show-style format, a multiple anchor presentation, and even a role for “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart.

But McManus said the broadcast will stick to one anchor — and not dramatically deviate from the tried-and-true formula or try to aggressively go after younger viewers who aren’t watching TV news anyway.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to tear up the format and break the mold,” he said. “The audience is better served with a traditional evening newscast… The goal is to get a larger share of the existing evening news audience.” With rumors flying over how much Katie Couric would cost in the anchor chair, McManus said the job’s salary wouldn’t impact CBS’ news budget.

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