ANALYSIS: Female As Evening Anchor Is Old News

Related: Charles Gibson to Step Down as ‘World News' Anchor

Diane Sawyer will be the second woman to solo anchor an evening newscast when she takes over ABC’s World News from Charles Gibson in January 2010. She follows former Today host Katie Couric, who ascended to the anchor seat at the CBS Evening News in September 2006.

With Sawyer’s ascension, the gender balance of the evening news—long considered a bastion of seriousness and high purpose—tilts toward women, with NBC’s Brian Williams soon to be the lone male anchor. While women have been paired with men – Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner; Connie Chung and Dan Rather – those arrangements, much as they mirrored the formula employed by the morning shows and local news, ended badly. (Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff alternated anchor duties before their brief tenure as co-anchors of World News ended in January 2006, when Woodruff was severely injured while reporting from Iraq.)

But the mere fact that the discussion still centers on gender strikes some female journalists as antiquated.

“I think it will be news when it’s not news,” says Elizabeth Mehren, journalism professor at Boston University. “Coming in as the second woman anchor of a major [evening] news show shouldn’t really be news. It was more of a coup when it was Connie Chung, because that was a very edgy, bold move. The truth is, who is more qualified [than Sawyer]?”

The media feeding frenzy that surrounded Couric’s migration from morning television on Today to the male stronghold of the anchor desk was largely centered on her hard news credentials. Unfairly or not, 15 years in morning television had defined Couric. Much of the coverage took special note of her appearance (her recent shorter haircut provoked a fresh round of the sort of inspection reserved for women).

Sawyer, who at 63 is more than ten years older than Couric, is not likely to face the same scrutiny. Her legs have rarely been fodder for the blogosphere. She has co-hosted Good Morning America since 1999. But she came to the program with a reputation as a serious journalist forged at 20/20 and Primetime Live, and prior to joining ABC, at CBS, where she was the first full-time female correspondent on 60 Minutes.

“The perception is that she has somewhat more gravitas [than Couric],” says Marie Danziger, director of the Communications Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “Diane has a deeper, more resonant voice, a calmer mannerism, a kind of grown up aura. And the very fact that she’s been around so long puts her in that gallery with people like Charlie Gibson, like Walter Cronkite, like Peter Jennings. We know her. We trust her to have the background of knowledge and experience.”

Still, as CBS learned when it attempted to shake up the evening newscast format with Couric’s arrival, the broadcast news audience can be rather hostile to change.

“It’s going to be interesting to see whether it matters in terms of ratings to ABC News whether their newscast is anchored by a woman,” says Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Gibson’s tenure as sole anchor of World News started out well. The broadcast finished 2007 as the top-rated evening news cast, a feat the program had not accomplished in more than ten years. But Nightly News With Brian Williams regained the lead in 2008 and has been the most-watched newscast for 46 consecutive weeks (40 weeks among news’ target demographic of 25-54-year-olds). The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric has languished in third.

“I think that Katie Couric has demonstrated that you can be a very effective anchor but without that translating into ratings,” adds Jones. “I’m sure that gender will be a factor for some people, but I think for most people it’s going to be who they feel more comfortable with. Will this mean a great boost for NBC? I don’t know. But I think we’re now well past the notion that women aren’t equipped to be the very best journalists and anchors on the most important shows.”

For ABC News the most important program for the bottom line is not World News, but GMA, a cash cow that supports news gathering operations well beyond its broadcast footprint. Left unresolved is what will happen to GMA without Sawyer, who has become the face of the broadcast while also filling its gravitas quota. If her move to World News – where she’ll have more reasonable hours and a lighter workload with more time to pursue newsmagazine projects – is bowing to the inevitable, it creates a big hole on the network’s most important broadcast.

According to sources at ABC News, the decision to step down was entirely Gibson’s. He took the job in 2006 after much heartbreak and turmoil at ABC News. The illness and death in August 2005 of veteran anchor Peter Jennings was the first blow to the news division. ABC News president David Westin named the co-anchor team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas to replace Jennings, but they were in the job for less than a month before Woodruff’s injury. Gibson stepped in to rotate in the anchor chair with Vargas. But later that year, Vargas, pregnant with her second child, announced she would step down, citing her doctor’s recommendation that she cut back on her work load. Gibson became sole anchor of World News in February 2007.

Sawyer was the clear heir apparent. But she was not expecting to take over from Gibson so soon and was in the midst of re-negotiating her GMA contract, say sources.

Now ABC News has another succession problem. There is speculation that Chris Cuomo could be elevated to co-host with Robin Roberts. David Muir and Bill Weir also have been mentioned. But no clear candidate has emerged.

In announcing the move, Westin offered few clues about a strategy at GMA. “Diane’s presence will certainly be missed on Good Morning America,” he wrote in an e-mail to ABC News staffers. “But we are fortunate that both Charlie and Diane will remain with their current broadcasts for the next four months; we will be making further announcements well before any changes are made.”