News as a Contact Sport


As usual, top producers of CBS News gathered in New York to plan the evening newscast last Thursday. Harriet Miers had ditched her Supreme Court nomination. Word, too, was circulating about the looming indictment of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. The lead stories were blatantly obvious--until a slightly built man chimed in. Sean McManus, longtime president of CBS Sports, had been awestruck by the Chicago White Sox's first win of the World Series in 88 years. "Without question," he deadpanned, "you should lead with the Chicago White Sox story." There was stunned silence. "For three or four seconds, they actually thought I was serious," McManus said in an interview last Friday, recounting his first meeting as president of CBS News.

For the past year, Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS, has been pledging to retool the game of evening news. After all, the once vaunted CBS News--home to news legends like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite--sank to an embarrassing low with the early exit of anchor Dan Rather after a flawed report on the president's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard. Now Moonves has replaced Andrew Heyward, CBS News president for a decade, with the surprising choice of McManus, son of the late sportscasting icon Jim McKay. "Frankly, Sean's first priority" is the overhaul of evening news, Moonves reiterated in an interview. "This has been a tough year for the news division. Sean will bring a new spirit without breaking the mold. He's an outsider, but [a CBS] insider at the same time. " Adds McManus, 50: "My focus is not what evening news will look like in six months, but in five years."

The star sports exec--who recaptured pro football for CBS, while strengthening its hold of pro golf and college basketball--is entering an arena in the throes of dizzying change, including a generational transition in anchors and evolving forms of "news," such as blogs and spoofs like "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." The other networks are scrambling to fill jobs and find a way to reverse the industrywide decline in ratings (down almost 60 percent since the 1969 peak) and to attract younger viewers. ABC News is pitting several veterans, including Charles Gibson, against each other in a runoff to succeed the late Peter Jennings. At NBC, a high-profile search is underway for a news czar to oversee NBC News and cable news siblings MSNBC and CNBC.

While everyone seems to agree that the old-fashioned model of the evening newscast needs fixing, it's by no means ready for the trash bin. More than 25 million daily viewers still catch at least parts of the evening news broadcasts. In a splintered media world, that's sizable. "I can't imagine the day that we'd drop our newscast," Moonves said. The Fox broadcast network is mulling a national newscast to complement its cable news outlet. "It's something we might consider," a spokesman told NEWSWEEK.

The competition in TV news is producing some amusing sideshows. Consider the example of rival news stars Katie Couric of NBC's "Today" show and Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" on CBS. Moonves reportedly has been trying to woo Couric, possibly as Rather's successor. Moonves and Couric's agent declined to comment. Last Friday night, NBC was to air an extensive Couric interview with Wallace on its news magazine "Dateline." But the segment, pegged to Wallace's new book on his career, was bumped for a special by retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. NBC then proposed airing the interview on its Sunday edition of "Dateline," up against "60 Minutes," where Wallace stars. "I said no," Wallace told NEWSWEEK. It may have been a longshot request, but with the uncertain future of the TV news biz--multiple anchors for a single show? a greater mix of quick headlines and longer pieces?--perhaps nothing is out of bounds these days.