CBS management yesterday dropped the ax on the current version of "CBS Morning News."

According to CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter, the low-rated two-hour morning program will be replaced in January by "a new broadcast produced by a unit to be formed within the CBS Broadcast Group."

The unit will report to Sauter in his capacity as an executive vice president of the group.

In a memo to the news division yesterday, he promised that "CBS News will continue to produce the 'Early Morning News' and it will be a significant contributor to the new broadcast."

About 50 employes here and in New York are assigned to "CBS Morning News." Their status remains undetermined with yesterday's announcement.

No details were available about the new program. But its assignment to a newly created unit of the Broadcast Group was seen as a strategy to avoid any appearance that the two-hour morning block was being surrendered to the CBS Entertainment division, although CBS News has clearly lost control of the time period.

ABC's "Good Morning America" is under its entertainment division, which pays ABC News for the blocks of news included in the daily broadcasts. NBC's "Today" show, while chock-full of entertainment features, is controlled by the network's news division.

On Thursday, the CBS Broadcast Group announced that another CBS News series, "West 57th," will be added to the prime-time schedule at midseason. There was speculation yesterday that in surrendering direct control of the morning news block, CBS News had already received a quid pro quo from CBS management with the "West 57th" pickup.

Currently, "CBS Morning News" is coanchored by Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver. They are scheduled to go on vacation starting Aug. 4 and are not expected back on the program. Their imminent departure, scheduled some time ago without the naming of successors, is an indication of how planning for the program has gone awry in recent weeks.

CBS News Executive Vice President Howard Stringer, who has been on vacation, reportedly has a "short list" of CBS News personnel slated to replace Sawyer and Shriver over the five months that "Morning News" will remain on the air in its present form.

With the decision to drop the show -- reached at a meeting yesterday between Broadcast Group President Gene F. Jankowski, Sauter and other CBS News executives -- the status of "Morning News" consultant Susan Winston was unclear yesterday. Some sources at CBS News said she has already resigned. She was unavailable for comment yesterday.

The former executive producer of "Good Morning America" was hired in April under a two-tier contract to effect a major reorganization of the morning program for the news division.

The plan she subsequently developed reportedly called for a large increase in the program's current $34 million annual budget and the hiring of ABC sports personality Frank Gifford (since re-signed by ABC), plus NBC's Linda Ellerbee (who just signed with ABC News) and Geraldo Rivera, formerly of ABC's "20/20" -- the latter two slated to be "roving anchors" and provide new energy to the show.

Connie Chung, who re-signed with NBC News, was also considered for an anchor spot.

One source said Winston's presentation to the CBS affiliates in May was received with "great enthusiasm -- it was a love feast. The trouble was, with the network not backing her, she oversold it."

CBS, which is undergoing still another series of budget-cutting moves, including the firing two weeks ago of 70 CBS News personnel, reportedly balked at her expensive plans.

CBS affiliates have been unhappy with the low-rated program for years. Sources within the affiliates claim Broadcast Group executives did not feel the plans provided a format sufficiently different from the program that has finished in third place for years -- except for a few second-place finishes in 1983 -- or from its rivals on ABC and NBC to warrant the added costs.

There have been reports that Winston, disappointed by the network's adverse decision, threatened to quit the network last week while in London for the royal wedding but that Sauter flew to England and talked her out of it. Yesterday, he confirmed he had gone to London but said he did not discuss her employment at that time.

Yesterday, Sauter said he expects to meet with Winston Monday. "The management of CBS News has a great admiration for her," he said. "I'd be delighted if she chooses to stay."

Her initial contract with CBS News in April called for a six-month period, ending in October, during which she would create a new format for the show. If those plans were approved by the news division and the network, she would then remain on board for 18 months as executive producer.

Despite the turmoil, a closed-circuit presentation to the affiliates regarding "CBS Morning News" is still scheduled next week.

In his staff memo yesterday, Sauter said that "since 'The Morning News' was expanded in 1981 to 90 minutes and later to two hours, we have been attempting to broaden our audience base.

"While we have enjoyed some success, we have not become fully competitive in the time period. It is imperative to the News division, the company and the affiliates that we do so.

"To reach that goal, we must have as much flexibility as possible in producing the broadcast, while still performing the news service that has always distinguished our organization.

"After several weeks of discussion, we have decided to eliminate the traditional boundaries that experience after experience have convinced us are too restrictive."

CBS has attempted vainly since 1954 to air a successful early morning show, in one form or another. For years, the "Today" show ruled the roost. Then "Good Morning America" took over until "Today" emerged again this year as No. 1. Meanwhile, CBS has been consistently third.