Network turns to veterans to revive ratings

Katie Couric’s recent trip to Iraq and Syria didn’t light up the ratings — and it certainly didn’t stop speculation over how long she can last in the anchor chair.

But in the eyes of CBS News chief Sean McManus, it was just what “CBS Evening News” needed: a signal to the core evening news viewer that the show was returning to its hard-news, no-gimmicks roots.

Since taking over as head of the CBS news division two years ago, McManus has been charged with trying to reinvent the wheel — and then with returing the “Evening News” to basics.

He’s responded by installing some of the oldest hands and biggest personalities in the business, including exec producer Rick Kaplan, who was a producer for Walter Cronkite, and Paul Friedman, whose news pedigree goes back to the “Huntley Brinkley Report.”

But in an age of exploding choice for news and information and managed decline for traditional newscasts, the question is whether the institution itself, which trails significantly in both the morning and evening news races, can be fixed.

And while much of the speculation surrounding CBS News of late has focused on how long Couric will stay in the chair, sources say it is McManus who has discussed a timetable of the presidential inauguration in January 2009 for his departure.

McManus says that rumor is untrue. “I have not set a timetable,” he says. “My plan is to be in this job a long time — I hope it’s a long time — or for as long as Leslie Moonves wants me to do it.”

When Moonves turned to McManus to resurrect the news division, he inherited a train wreck still smoldering from the Dan Rather Memogate scandal. Its evening newscast was in third place with a damaged anchor; its morning show franchise saddled with a 50-year tradition of ratings futility.

The news division’s demoralized staff was increasingly chasing better-funded competition at NBC and ABC, not to mention CNN.

The task was strikingly similar to the one taken on by mentor Roone Arledge, under whom McManus began his career at ABC in 1977. That was the year Arledge took on the ailing ABC News, which had never been a ratings force and was reeling from the disastrous pairing of Barbara Walters with Harry Reasoner on “ABC Evening News.”

As is now legend, Arledge turned it around, but that was in a three-network world when evening newscasts were considered essential, with 73% of America still watching one.

Two years into his project at CBS, no one would accuse McManus of standing still. He has appointed two leaders of the “Evening News” and exchanged a platoon of network correspondents with hires from NBC, ABC and CNN.

He tried a non-traditional approach, driven by an effort to play to Couric’s strengths — and then jettisoned it for Kaplan, known as “big tent” for his outsized personality and penchant for big journalistic ideas.

About the only thing he hasn’t done is waver in his commitment to Couric, the talent decision that only Moonves can make.

In the morning, McManus tried Steve Friedman, another veteran of the morning show wars who guided NBC’s “Today” in the mid-1990s, but last month replaced him with “Good Morning America” vet Shelley Ross, a force behind the bloody booking wars early in the decade.

They have their work cut out for them. “Early Show” is up a bit in female demos, but it’s still a ratings cellar-dweller.

“I really would like to figure out a way to make both of these shows more competitive,” McManus said after the appointment of Ross in August. “One has been in this position for a half century and the other has been in this position for 11 years. Neither will be easy to turn around. There’s a lot of history against both shows.”

Even “60 Minutes,” while still a journalistic force, is no longer the ratings juggernaut it was. A top-10 fixture for a couple of decades, the show, which lost both Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley last year, finished outside the top 20 last season.

McManus, who spent so much of his first year trying to separate the network from its recent past, will likely be embroiled in Dan Rather’s $70 million suit that threatens to dredge up a history the network is trying to forget.

Over the past two years, McManus has poured himself into the news job, delegating much of the running of CBS Sports to his No. 2, Tony Pettiti. Colleagues estimate McManus spends at least 90% of his time on the news division, attending the 10 a.m. editorial meeting, requesting specific stories from correspondents, and going over the evening news lineup.

Correspondents say emails from McManus — some sent before 7 a.m. — have become commonplace.

He isn’t an imposing physical presence or a shouter, but he exudes the confidence of someone who, as the son of legendary broadcaster Jim McKay (real name McManus), literally grew up in the television business.

Moonves brought him to CBS in 1996, and then greenlit a deal to bring the NFL back to the Eye in 1998. McManus brought both Greg Gumbel and James Brown back to the Eye, and ratings for both the games and studio show “NFL Today” have improved.

“He doesn’t make dramatic changes, but he works the model and tinkers until he gets it right,” says former CBS Sports prexy Neal Pilson, now a consultant.

Resurrecting a news division is fundamentally different. There are no sports rights to buy, and aside from certain planned events, like the elections, you are at the mercy of the news cycle, and forced to make decisions on spending money on the fly.

Perhaps to compensate for how thinly his attention is spread, and the fact he didn’t trust the bench in place under former prexy Andrew Heyward, McManus brought in veterans like his No. 2 Friedman, once considered the likely heir to Arledge as ABC News prexy before Disney passed him over for David Westin.

Indeed with Alphabet vets Friedman, Kaplan, recruitment chief Barbara Fedida, and now Ross all at the Eye, the new CBS News is looking more like the old ABC News.

Since Kaplan took over the “Evening News,” he has converted it into a traditional broadcast in a bid to win back the base of viewers who were turned off by Couric and have gone to first-place Charles Gibson at ABC.

“I think Kaplan has done the job he was hired to do in terms of returning the broadcast to hard-news footing,” says news analyst Andrew Tyndall.

Many analysts say that since Kaplan took over, the coverage gap between CBS and its competitors has been closed.

“In 2007, any distinction between the topics they covered versus the other two networks has been negligible,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

This doesn’t take any of the intangibles into account: how Couric came across or how well the stories were written.

“I firmly believe that in the end it’s the content that dictates the ratings,” McManus says. “Over time, if people think they are getting a better broadcast, they will switch to us.”CBS research shows most news viewers aren’t devotees of one anchor or another. “Only 15% to 20% of people watch the same newscast every night,” Friedman says. “The rule of thumb has been get someone to watch your newscast for more than one night a week and you’re in good shape.”

The fundamental stumbling block, over which McManus has little control, is the performance of CBS affiliates in the top-10 markets, which give a smaller lead-in to the “Evening News” than its competitors.

Yet Couric drops a big portion of her lead-in. Of the 6.4 million who are watching CBS when the “Evening News” begins, an average of only 5.8 million stuck around for the newscast during the last three months, an 8% drop. ABC and NBC both add significant viewers from their lead-ins.

In the morning, McManus is trying to fix a problem that has been endemic at CBS for 50 years. CBS never truly attempted to compete in news in the morning until the ’80s, when it canceled “Captain Kangaroo” and brought in Diane Sawyer. The story since has been one of multiple hosts and ratings failures, including Steve Friedman’s first stint at “Early Show” when he brought in Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson.

Steve Friedman, McManus’ first choice for EP, attempted to improve the first hour of the show by having Couric’s principal sub, Russ Mitchell, read the news. He also brought in Maggie Rodriguez as a co-anchor from CBS’ Miami affiliate, and axed longtime co-anchor Rene Syler.

But the ratings didn’t move much, and McManus made a move for Shelley Ross, after interviewing several morning show vets for the job including former NBC “Nightly News” exec producer John Reiss.

The Ross regime has only been in place for a few weeks, but has already reorganized the morning show staff to get its most senior members involved in booking guests. Ross sent a message that she’s going after the biggest celebrity bookings: first landing the victim of O.J. Simpson’s alleged armed robbery of a Las Vegas hotel room, and then getting an interview with the McCann family whose 3-year-old daughter has been missing from Portugal since May.

But the sense is that the show may not be able to take another step forward with the same anchor cast.

When Ross was appointed, McManus said he would evaluate the current cast, which in addition to Mitchell and Rodriguez includes Harry Smith, Hannah Storm, Julie Chen and Dave Price.

As with the evening news, McManus is not keen on change just for the sake of it.

“I think if there is a clear and quicker way to winning, I will normally choose that way,” McManus said. “Occasionally it involves making personnel changes. I’m paid to make those decisions I think are right and we will see in the end if they bear out.”

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