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CBS expects Tiger's return to be among biggest events of decade

As the formal part of its annual NCAA basketball Media Day drew to a close last week, a reporter approached CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus to talk about a subject other than college basketball.

"News?" McManus asked.

No.

"Football," McManus pressed again.

Nope.

"The Masters," McManus said.

The executive was told he was getting closer.

McManus smiled. "Tiger Woods."

Yes, that man again. Last week a number of outlets, including the Associated Press, Fox Sports.com and New York Times, reported that Woods was targeting the Masters for his return to competitive golf. How big a media event will this be?

"I think the first tournament Tiger Woods plays again, wherever it is, will be the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years," McManus said.

The reporter -- taken aback by that claim -- asked if he had heard correctly.

"It is hard to overestimate how much interest there will be," McManus continued. "Tiger Woods is the most famous, most recognized, most accomplished athlete in the world, and his celebrity and prominence is even larger than it was. When you look at the fact that he gave a very simple press statement with no questions and every broadcast and cable news network in America carried it with great interest, I think that is an indication that whatever he does has enormous interest. And whatever he does on the golf course for the first time since Thanksgiving will be of interest to almost every man and women in this country."

This might not be hyperbole when you consider the numbers for Woods' apology last month. Fifteen networks carried the 13 1/2 minute mea culpa live, including all the broadcast networks. According to Nielsen, more than 6.5 million viewers tuned in to watch on the cable networks alone, with the Fox News Channel pulling in nearly 2.1 million viewers. ESPN averaged a 1.4 cable rating for its telecast of Woods' statement, more than three times higher than the 0.4 cable rating it produced in the same time slot 24 hours earlier. The apology was also streamed live on Hulu.com, TMZ.com and dozens of other sites. As for total viewers, ratings only measure at-home viewing, and not workplaces, so it's impossible to get an accurate count. One estimate had 20 million people watching the apology, but that's probably low given social media.

As the head of both the news and sports divisions at CBS, McManus is in a unique position to dictate his network's coverage of Woods. If the golfer returns for The Masters -- CBS airs the final two rounds on April 10 and 11 and takes care of the production for the opening two rounds which air on ESPN -- McManus's network will have a competitive advantage over his peers. The Masters is more restrictive of media credentials than any other major; media is not allowed inside the ropes. ESPN is also likely to have some programming air from Augusta National, including ESPN International and ESPN Deportes.

So what should the viewers expect from CBS's on-air announcers when Tiger returns? "We will primarily report on what is happening at the golf tournament," McManus said. "I don't think there is a lot of reason to dwell on what has happened in the past because it is one of the most exploited and overexposed stories in recent memory. But I will be fascinated to hear what Nick Faldo, Ian Baker-Finch, David Feherty or Jim Nantz, or any of the broadcasters have to say on what Tiger is doing on the course, how he is reacting, how the fans react, how the media reacts, and how his fellow competitors have reacted. Those will all be fascinated stories."

McManus said he told his broadcasters not to speculate or give their opinion on what was happening with Tiger prior to the start of the PGA season. "But that ceased as soon as the PGA Tour got underway and as soon as we did our first tournament," McManus said. "I told Nick: Say whatever it is you want to say about Tiger Woods. Having that said that, I also said to other broadcasters unless Tiger Woods is a part of this story, I don't think there is a great need to give your opinion. Gratuitous opinions, I didn't encourage. But once we are doing a golf tournament, whether Tiger is in it or not, our announcers are free to express their opinion and there is no direction or advice on how and when to express that.

It remains unclear whether Woods will do a sit-down with an outlet prior to competition. Plenty of broadcast outlets, from ESPN to Oprah Winfrey to Golf Channel, have made multiple requests. "If the opportunity came up for an interview with Tiger on 60 Minutes," McManus said, "I would not turn that opportunity down."

No kidding.

Woods' epic 12-stroke win at the 1997 Masters remains the most-watched Masters in history. The final-round broadcast drew a preposterous 14.1 rating, with an estimated 43 million viewers tuned to all or part of the broadcast. It was the start of golf's halcyon days as a television entity, and whenever Woods returns from his self-imposed sojourn, it's going to usher in another era of curiosity seekers, unlike any the sport has seen before.

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