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Getting CBS to front of sports pack huge, critical challenge for Sean McManus

It’s easy to view Sean McManus’ move to chairman of CBS Sports as a demotion by promotion.

Announced Tuesday, the change requires McManus to give up his job leading CBS News while also helming the network’s sports division; a dual role he’s held since 2005, when he became only the second person ever to do both gigs (the first, former ABC News head Roone Arledge, is credited for turning the network into a news and sports powerhouse in the 1970s).

But during McManus’ time, the news division has seen some serious challenges. CBS paid top dollar for news anchor Katie Couric, reportedly inking a bank-busting $15-million deal while laying off news staffers.

And the change only brought a brief boost to the evening newscast’s ratings, as Couric has languished in third place despite some notable successes. As Couric nears the end of her gigantic deal – virtually assured that CBS won’t be backing up the money truck this time out, amid rumors she may try a syndicated TV show – moving McManus may be the easiest way the slap a new face on that negotiation.

Unnoticed in all the talk about news, however, is an important fact. CBS’ fortunes in sports may be more important to its bottom line than anything Couric does.

Competitor NBC Universal, fresh off completing its deal to sell cable giant Comcast a controlling interest in the company, immediately announced its own restructuring in sports, masterminded by its guru, Dick Ebersol. The changes brought new executives to oversee the Golf Channel, Versus and SportsNet, an alliance of 11 regional sports networks.

From the moment the Comcast/NBC deal was unveiled, analysts expected the company to create a sports powerhouse from the two companies’ wide-ranging array of sports outlets and Ebersol’s programming smarts. ABC has the Worldwide Leader, Fox had the Super Bowl – what does CBS have?

That’s the question McManus should be tackling, as all the networks face the daunting prospect of a TV season under NFL lockout – which would eliminate network TV’s biggest draw, just as it has reached unparalleled heights of popularity.

There may be no more eloquent argument for the team owners and players to resolve their differences than Sunday’s Super Bowl, which demolished previous records for viewership by drawing and average 111 million people to a singular spectacle in which the game outshone any commercial, halftime show or preamble.

Football telecasts this season consistently met or broke records, as viewers confirmed time and again that the last remaining gathering place for most engaged Americans is professional football game broadcasts.

McManus has already said he plans to focus on the coverage of the NCAA tournament with Turner Sports, a first for the network, along with the PGA Tour, expanding CBS College Sports and dealing with whatever happens to the NFL, according to the Houston Chronicle.

There’s little doubt of McManus’ roots in the sports side of broadcasting. Literally raised in the business as the son of legendary sports broadcaster Jim McKay, McManus has led CBS’ sports division for 14 years, developing the aggressive March Madness online presentations that proved an important landmark in network TV’s grudging acceptance of placing material on the Internet.

Now McManus faces the challenge of supercharging sports at the only network which doesn’t have some kind of cable outlet, as its biggest competitors are tuning up their biggest guns.

Forget about superstar anchors and third place morning news shows; getting CBS Sports in front of this pack just may be the biggest challenge McManus has ever faced.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed,  at  blogs.tampabay.com/media.   
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