CBS Sports chair carries memories of father, Jim McKay

Though Sean McManus didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps as an on-air broadcaster, there are certain parallels in their lives, not the least of which is that as primal as television news can be, sports is truly the passion neither he nor dad Jim McKay could live without.

In February, McManus moved up from CBS Sports president to chairman, handing off the CBS News reins to new chairman Jeff Fager and prexy David Rhodes. And so McManus, who had been overseeing both the news and sports divisions at the Eye since 2005, when CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves tapped him for the dual roles, found himself once again at CBS’ college basketball production studio for one of CBS’ biggest moneymakers, the NCAA basketball tournament.

“I’ve never removed myself from the production element, which is what in the end I love the most,” McManus says.

March Madness is in its 30th year on the Eye net, but the first under a new contract McManus and Moonves negotiated with Turner Sports in which the two TV titans forked over $10.8 billion in a 14-year deal with the Natl. Collegiate Athletic Assn. With games airing on CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV, total viewership for the first week of games rose to its highest levels in 17 years.

Though CBS’ initial numbers naturally declined relative to the years in which it broadcast March Madness alone, the stage was set for a ratings windfall for CBS with the April 4 championship game approaching. As McManus has pointed out, the shared investment-shared reward scenario of the Turner contract beats the alternative of trying to go solo, getting outbid and coming away empty.

“You’ve always got to be thinking one step ahead, and when a deal comes up — and NCAA basketball is the best example — you’ve got to be creative,” says McManus, who has inked rights deals for CBS with the NFL, and for college football and professional golf and tennis. “It’s even more challenging than it used to be.”

The network has been innovative online as well, with March Madness on Demand providing tens of millions of dollars in revenue from live streaming of games without cannibalizing the television side, McManus says. In the first week of this year’s tourney, total site-specific visits increased 47% compared with 2010.

McManus isn’t cut out to be the watchmaker who builds the device and then is content to let it run. Even in this new era, which puts March Madness games on the four networks in their entirety and doesn’t require CBS to constantly switch between them, he has been on the job in the studio all day and into the night.

“I’m monitoring all the broadcasts, listening to the announcers,” McManus says. “I try to give my input in ways we can maybe get better. I watch all the games in terms of quality of production, and I’m not averse to making numerous suggestions to the directors and producers.

“I assume they appreciate my feedback, but that I can’t guarantee,” he adds with a laugh.

The workload, even on days that don’t include March Madness, is enough to make one wonder how McManus ever fit CBS News into the equation.

“Last year, I would have started my day at about 6:45, monitoring and watching all the morning news programs, including ‘The Early Show’ on CBS, conducted the editorial meeting at 10 o’clock to talk about ‘CBS Evening News,’ raced up to the (basketball) studio, watched all the games and been involved with all the switching, then raced back down to watch and monitor ‘CBS Evening News,’ and then at 7 o’clock raced back up.”

McManus believes it’s better for both divisions now that he can focus on sports.

“I cherish the time at CBS News and (all) we accomplished, but it got to the point where it was so complicated that it was best (that a transition be made). I’m happy they picked probably the best news executive in the business in Jeff Fager and they brought in a talented, aggressive No. 2 to work with Jeff in David.”

Nevertheless, it’s not as if there weren’t any shadow memories of his news days for McManus as crises have unfolded in Japan and Libya.

“I miss not being very involved in the news and knowing exactly what is happening,” he says, “When something big happens in the world, my first reaction is to call the newsroom and get an update.”

Though it was long before his career began, McManus’ news baptism came that unthinkable day, four decades ago in Germany at the 1972 Olympics, when McKay served as the voice of a horrified world.

“I remember vividly that I was supposed to spend the day with my father, because it was his one off day,” McManus recalls. “I was going to spend (time) with him sightseeing or just relaxing in Munich, and he called me and said, ‘I’ve got to go to the broadcast center. (ABC Sports president Roone Arledge) just called, and there’s something happening at the Olympic Village. You want to ride over with me?’ “

As McKay (who changed his name from McManus in 1950 at the behest of a CBS producer who wanted to title his show “The Real McKay”) began 16 consecutive hours anchoring the nightmare of Israeli athletes held hostage and ultimately killed by Arab terrorists, McManus stood off to the side with Arledge and his team, witnessing a broadcast that Walter Cronkite would later say made his profession proud.

“It was just a horribly tragic day,” McManus says. “It had an enormous impact on me. … In some tiny way, if through osmosis, I learned some lessons about journalism and reporting that served me very well my entire career.

“I walked away with an enormous sense of pride of what my father accomplished under the most grueling circumstances.”

McManus’ bond with his father, who passed away in 2008, is unmistakable — he takes pride in pointing out that because of McKay’s weekend-tilted schedule, he was always at McManus’ weekday youth football and baseball games. (“On away games, it was four mothers and Jim McKay driving the station wagon,” McManus says.)

McManus realized years before the Olympic tragedy, as he was practicing broadcasts of Yankees games into a tape recorder in the 1960s, that he wouldn’t be comfortable following in his father’s on-air footsteps.

In 1979, two years out of Duke U., he went to work in production for Don Ohlmeyer and Jeff Mason at NBC Sports, quickly developing a desire to learn about programming and rights acquisition.

That precociousness led to McManus becoming NBC Sports vice president of program planning and development in 1982 at age 27, the youngest vice president in Peacock history. Later, he would spend a decade as senior VP of U.S. TV sales and programming for IMG’s television division, Trans World Intl., before being named CBS Sports prexy in 1996.

When Moonves added CBS News to his duties in 2005, McManus became just the second person to hold both titles — after Arledge.

“I had enormous respect for what CBS News stood for,” McManus says. “I also realized there were enormous challenges there, but that was not a job that I was going to turn down.

“I proceeded to dive in and still keep track of what was going on at CBS Sports, and obviously delegated more (there). The majority of my time and energy was spent on the news division for the next five years … (because) sports generally happens on the weekends, and news is 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Now that he’s back in sports full time, with no shortage of duties to occupy himself — CBS’ coverage of Masters golf begins soon after the NCAA men’s basketball title game — McManus could be said to be truly in his element.

And, by no means coincidentally, his father’s.

“I always get emotional when I talk about this, just traveling with him,” McManus says. “I went to so many sporting events with him as a child, whenever I was on vacation … literally sitting by his side in the announcers’ booth.

“For a sports fan and someone who liked hanging out with his father, it was just a tremendous life experience as a kid, and that obviously is a reason for my love of sports television.”

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