Try, Try Again at 'World News Tonight'

After a year of upheaval and the death of star anchor Peter Jennings, ABC News restored some much needed stability, naming veteran newsman and Good Morning America anchor Charlie Gibson anchor of World News Tonight. His appointment officially ends the short-lived anchor duo of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, which was sidetracked after less than a month when Woodruff was severely injured in January on assignment in Iraq and Vargas announced she is expecting her second child this summer. Gibson and ABC News President David Westin spoke to B&C's Allison Romano about the state of ABC News, the future of GMA without Gibson, and how the anchor will make the ABC evening newscast his own.

Would you be open to co-anchoring with Bob Woodruff when and if he returns?

Gibson: I could absolutely see that with Bob. When we negotiated my contract, on every single clause, we went through questions of how it would affect Woodruff. He has a long and difficult road ahead of him. Everyone is committed to the idea that Woodruff can come back. We want him back. We'll make it work.

Last week, news analyst Andrew Tyndall said ABC sent a terrible message to women by replacing a pregnant anchor.

He ignores that this is something that Elizabeth wanted to do because of the difficulties of the pregnancy and she is becoming a mother for the second time. She said this was going to work out well for her family. We've been as good as anyone for pregnant women. Cynthia McFadden and Kate Snow were anchors through their pregnancies and after. Those two and Elizabeth are very much parts of this news organization.

How do you put your stamp on the newscast? What do you think you bring to World News Tonight?

I'd put a little more news in there because 22 minutes is still a limited time to do the news of the day.

Most important, I can add some solidity. I know how to get to the London bureau by subway, and I know the producers in various places. I'm part of the woodwork, I've been around, and there is some utility in that fact. People have been shaken [at ABC News], and it has had psychological effects.

How will your style compare with Katie Couric's and Brian Williams'?

I want to avoid this becoming being a personal contest, but I know this is inevitable. I saw Bob Schieffer at a ballgame the other night, and I complimented him on his work on Evening News. He said all he's done is feature the reporters, that too much emphasis had been on Dan [Rather]. I rather like that approach, and I wish we could do the same.

What will it take for GMA to overtake Today?

It is not about style of the program. We have a lot less program time every half-hour than Today, and that puts GMA at a disadvantage. When you go away [to local news breaks or commercials] for a long time, viewers shop around.

That hurts us dreadfully. Most of that time was given away to affiliates when GMA was in bad shape in the 1990s, and now we can't get it back. If I had my druthers, I would make that change.

World News Tonight has been through so much tumult in the last year. What does Charlie Gibson bring to the news division?

Westin: He brings continuity and stability. Charlie is established and recognized by the audience. The program has not had a permanent anchor now for 14 months. Now we can market and promote the newscast more effectively.

Speculation about Gibson picked up at the upfront and affiliates meeting. Tell me about the timing.

What has made this time difficult has been Peter's illness and then losing him and then watching Bob be injured. The loss of any anchor would be a trauma for any news organization. To lose two, professionally, is very difficult, and these are personal losses, too. That is the difficulty, not making the decisions. I try to make the right decisions and at the right time. This is the right time—well in advance of the maternity leave but after we've gotten through the season.

Did you consider continuing the two- anchor format with Charlie and Elizabeth?

With something this important, we considered everything. I asked Elizabeth and Bob quite specifically because they complemented each other in their skills, interests and appetites. They were a wonderful pairing and would have been successful.

But you can't take one-half of that team away and plug someone else in. I said from the beginning I do not just want to have a man and woman sitting next to each other on the desk. Given the factors, I concluded it was time to back off the two-anchor format for now. If it is solo anchor, Charlie is the terribly obvious answer.

Bob has expressed desire to get better and come back. There is a place here, including an anchor role, when it makes sense.

You're taking Gibson off GMA, the more profitable news program, at a time when you are within striking distance of Today. Did that slow this decision?

I needed to make a change in advance of Elizabeth's maternity leave. I believed it might involve Charlie, and I wanted to get through the season and May sweeps. With GMA, we added Robin Roberts as third anchor, in part because she'd earned it and because of an anticipated transition down the road. Even without Charlie, we're left with two outstanding anchors who are more than capable of carrying the program. Over summer, we'll bring other people in to give Diane and Robin all the support and tools they need to be fully competitive as we reach this new world in September when there are some changes across the street. Diane has a long-term contract that goes on for some time.