CBS boss Sean McManus says Katie Couric expected to stay ‘long time’ despite layoffs

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CBS News chief Sean McManus said Wednesday that it’s unfair to criticize Katie Couric’s multimillion-dollar salary at a time news division jobs are being cut and that he expected the evening news anchor to stay at the network “for a long time.”

Although no negotiations have taken place, McManus offered the strongest public signal yet that the network is interested in Couric beyond the May 2011 expiration of her current contract — a possibility once considered remote.

“I am not anticipating, nor do I want to anticipate, life at CBS News without Katie Couric,” said McManus, CBS News and Sports president.

CBS News, which has about 1,500 employees, is in the process of job cuts across all of its broadcasts. McManus declined to say how many people would lose their jobs. He said published reports – one said as many as 150 jobs would be lost – were inaccurate and the figures were too high. There’s no specific catalyst, other than the general economic downturn that has been affecting all media companies, he said.

The cuts involved the closing of the network’s offices in Moscow and Tel Aviv, although McManus said CBS News will still have a presence in Russia and Israel.

“We’ve done some of our best work at CBS News in the past few years, and that is going to continue,” he said. “These layoffs, as unfortunate and difficult as they may be, are not going to affect our ability to cover the news on a worldwide basis.”

Despite cutbacks in bureaus outside of the United States, McManus noted that CBS had four correspondents and five camera crews in Haiti within 16 hours of last month’s earthquake.

Couric was one of them. Since she’s CBS News’ highest-paid employee, at an annual salary estimated at nearly $15 million, Couric has been the subject of some anonymous grumbling by people at CBS News upset at the layoffs.

“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” McManus said. “There is no relationship between how much money Katie is paid and the adjustments we make to our budget periodically.”

McManus wouldn’t speak about any future negotiations with Couric, and whether she’d be asked to take a large pay cut in order to return.

The “CBS Evening News” with Couric has remained in third place in the ratings behind NBC and ABC. But McManus cited Couric’s work, her interviews with Sarah Palin, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Alex Rodriguez, along with reporting trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. He noted that CBS has won two duPont awards for projects where Couric was in the lead, and the broadcast has won two Edward R. Murrow awards in a row for top evening newscasts.

“If you look at what she’s contributed in terms of quality work … it’s hard to imagine that a news organization wouldn’t want someone like Katie working for them,” McManus said.

Couric, in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel’s Hal Boedeker on Wednesday, said that she’s “having a ball” in her job.

“I stay focused on the job I have,” she said. “You spend too much time thinking about the future, you can’t focus on the work you have to do every day. I’m so busy. I’m loving my daily schedule.”

Couric is set to interview President Barack Obama live Sunday on CBS’ Super Bowl preview show.

Meanwhile, both McManus and the evening news’ executive producer, Rick Kaplan, said they expect Kaplan to stay in his job beyond the expiration of his current contract next month.