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CBS taps sports chief to take over news division

Sean McManus to replace outgoing president Andrew Heyward on Nov. 7
/ Source: The Associated Press

CBS on Wednesday appointed its top sports executive, Sean McManus, to replace Andrew Heyward as head of a news division still searching for Dan Rather’s replacement and seeking to rebound from last year’s discredited report on President Bush’s military service.

McManus, 50, follows in the path of the late Roone Arledge at ABC as an executive who took over a network news division while still running sports.

Heyward will leave two months shy of his 10th anniversary running the legendary news division, a distant third in the ratings in both the morning and evening yet still the home of TV’s top newsmagazine, “60 Minutes.”

“There was a general feeling that we needed a new vision, just a new way of looking at the news division,” said CBS chief Leslie Moonves.

Moonves has expressed discontent this fall about the ideas he’s been given for revamping the “CBS Evening News.” Rather stepped down in March as its anchorman, and had made his intentions known publicly nearly a year ago.

Many in the news industry were surprised that Heyward had survived in January when an independent report faulted CBS News for rushing a story about Bush’s military service onto the air without ever proving that documents upon which it was based were real. Three executives were forced to resign and the report’s producer, Mary Mapes, was fired; Moonves concluded that Heyward had been let down by his staff.

McManus will take over as news chief on Nov. 7, one day before Mapes’ book on the episode will be published.

Controversy no factor in Heyward's departure?Heyward, who described his departure as amicable, said he believed his exit had nothing to do with that incident. His contract was expiring at the end of the year.

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“This is Leslie wanting a change and so do I,” said Heyward, 55, who expects to remain active in the media business.

Heyward presided over the network’s recent aggressive moves to improve its Internet news delivery and orchestrated a delicate transfer of power at “60 Minutes” from founder Don Hewitt to Jeff Fager. He also established the spinoff “60 Minutes II,” which Moonves canceled last spring because of poor ratings.

The appointment of a sports executive to take over news seemed a lot stranger a generation ago, before Arledge led ABC News to the top of the ratings in the 1980s.

McManus, son of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning sports broadcaster Jim McKay, began at ABC Sports in 1977 and has been head of CBS Sports since 1996, negotiating the return of NFL football and a long-term deal to keep CBS Sports the home of the NCAA basketball tournament.

“I know that covering a Super Bowl is not the same as covering a convention or an election, but I think there are probably more similarities than there are differences,” he said.

Concentrating on the news division
With much of CBS Sports’ talent and the rights to cover certain events tied up in long-term deals, McManus will be able to concentrate primarily on the news division while his top deputy, Tony Betitto, runs sports day-to-day, Moonves said.

Bob Schieffer, “Face the Nation” host and Rather’s fill-in on the evening news, praised the choice.

“He’s got a great track record,” Schieffer said. “He’s innovative. He’s a guy with ideas. He’s made CBS Sports something we can all be proud of and he sets very high standards. I think all of that will translate very well.”

The appointment will likely mean further delay in finding Rather’s replacement so McManus can put his stamp on the decision. McManus said he’s tried to attract top talent like Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms to CBS Sports and he hopes to do the same for the news division.

Despite the success of the CBS entertainment division, the evening news has lagged far behind NBC and ABC in the ratings. It’s the same story in the morning — it has been for decades — although “The Early Show” has shown improvements.

“Maybe it’s partially because of my sports background, but I am unbelievably competitive, and so is my boss Leslie Moonves,” McManus said. “Being in third place, whether it’s sports, entertainment or news, is not acceptable.”

Only hours after his appointment, a politically oriented Web log reported that McManus had made a $250 contribution to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004. A year earlier, he contributed $1,000 to Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. A CBS spokesman confirmed the donations but would not comment about them.