From increasing Thursday Night Football ratings, to a creative deal to expand coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament, to helping mint a new wave of must-see golf stars, Sean McManus is one of sports television’s top innovators. As chairman of CBS Sports, he presides over an enviable batch of big-league properties that put up enviable results in 2015. According to Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. president and CEO, McManus is “a first-class guy and a great leader of the division” whose trademarks are strong relationships, savvy negotiating skills and stellar leadership.
A McManus pet project, CBS’ Thursday Night Football, averaged 15.8 million viewers this year, up 6% from last year, and several Sunday afternoon games vaulted into the fall’s roster of most-watched programs. The run of pigskin glory will culminate in February with Super Bowl 50. McManus took a time-out from big-game preparations to speak with B&C’s Michael Malone and Dade Hayes in his New York office. An edited transcript follows.
What are you most proud of in 2015?
At the top of the list would be Thursday Night Football. We had some really lofty goals in terms of promotion, branding, marketing, production and presentation. We’ve worked incredibly closely with the NFL and I think all of the expectations that we had have been either met or, in most cases, exceeded. The ratings have grown over last year. We have settled into a really good rhythm from a production standpoint and the marketing has been unprecedented—we’ve done more marketing for Thursday Night Football than any product in the history of CBS, and it has really worked out.
Give us some more specifics about the marketing.
In a 24-hour period before the first game was going to air on the NFL Network [Thursday games were simulcast on CBS and NFL Network during Weeks 2-8, then were exclusive to NFL Network, with CBS producing, starting Nov. 5. They will be simulcast again Dec. 3], Stephen Colbert did about a minute and a half on the transition in a lighthearted, funny way. CBS This Morning, that Thursday, did a big feature on the NFL and the matchup and the Golden Football promotion. The Talk, our syndicated show, did a football-themed cooking segment talking specifically about the NFL Network. [CBS] All Access did a major piece in its program. Then at 8:25 [p.m.] we did a promo for Thursday Night Football in The Big Bang Theory, our No. 1 show. Just in that 24-hour period, the quality and value of the promotion is unprecedented.
What’s the status for Thursday Night Football next season?
We’re talking to [the NFL]. I’d like to think the results we have shown will have a bearing on who airs Thursday Night Football next year. But the NFL was very open about the fact that they wanted to do a one-year deal and that’s what we have. But some time in the next month or two we’ll be sitting down with them. I’m sure there’s a lot of interest from other parties but we’ll make our case and do everything we can to keep it on CBS.
Any concern that NFL programming loses its novelty when so much is available on TV?
Oversaturation is something we all worry about. The fact of the matter is, we haven’t reached that point yet because Monday night’s ratings are still very, very strong, Sunday nights are really strong, Sunday afternoon continues to be strong and Thursday night is growing year after year. There is still an appetite for the amount of football that’s programmed. If anything, the interest seems to be greater in the sport than it has ever been.
Ratings outside of football are down. Why are people tuning in to NFL content in such giant numbers?
First of all, it’s such a great sport for television. The players really are gladiators out there. And the way the sport is played and the way it’s covered, it’s just incredibly visually dynamic. And there’s always all sorts of storylines—the NFL is now a 12-month a year product; it is always in the news, sometimes for bad things, a lot of times for good things. The fact that there are only 16 regular season games, every game is important and it generates a lot of interest.
Fantasy football has had an affect, especially on the younger viewers.
And I think the new ways in which the NFL is consumed, whether it be on mobile, on the DirecTV package, NFL Red Zone, all feed into this general level of interest. It just seems to get bigger and bigger every single year.
The NFL has some very successful cable distribution, both on the NFL Network and on ESPN. But I believe strongly in the broadcast platform and I think it’s been proven that for certain properties, like Thursday Night Football, that network television is still really, really important.
There have been layoffs at Turner Sports and ESPN. Is CBS Sports the right size, staff-wise?
I think we have the right size. I work for a man, Leslie Moonves, who believes you should make money on sports programming. Other networks have a different philosophy, which I wholeheartedly respect. They have deficit-spent on properties like World Cup Soccer, Olympics, Major League Baseball, where they may not be making a pure profit on it. But from the position of building their assets, whether it’s cable companies or cable networks, they have been good deals for them. We have chosen not to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in our 24-hour sports network [CBS Sports Network]. We’ve taken a different approach. So when there is a bit of a downturn, we haven’t had the need to downsize. I never like to see it when other companies announce layoffs, but I think we’re positioned pretty well for the future and our properties work for us financially. We are not, by and large, losing money on our sports properties.
What’s happening on CBS Sports Network?
It’s basically live events—live football, live basketball. We’ve got some really good studio programming, such as Boomer & Carton, which is simulcast in the morning. We have Adam Schein [host of Time to Schein] that airs every afternoon. We do Monday QB, which features people like Phil Simms and Trent Green and Steve Beuerlein and Dan Fouts giving a quarterback’s perspective on what happened that week in football.
We have a lot of really good studio programming with Inside SEC Football and Inside College Football. We have a three-hour Sunday morning show, which is an adjunct to NFL Today, and We Need To Talk, which is the only female-hosted show. That should’ve happened a long time ago; I’m proud that we were the first ones to do it.
We are trying to build the network from the ground up and I think we’re doing a really good job. But we haven’t, as I said, gone out and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on properties because we believe we should be making money in the cable sports business. And eventually we will be competitive for the marquee properties. Right now we are doing it in a more conservative, more measured way.
Read the entire interview on Broadcasting Cable where this article was originally published