You could almost feel the palpable sense of relief emanating from ABC News headquarters on Peter Jennings Way last week after News division President David Westin did what he should have done months ago and tapped Good Morning America host Charlie Gibson to anchor World News Tonight.
Morale had been low ever since Jennings left World News Tonight in April 2005, following his cancer diagnosis; he died that August. But much of what transpired since then could have been avoided.
A year ago, Good Morning America posed a serious challenge to NBC's No. 1 Today. World News Tonight was a solid No. 2 in the nightly news race, despite Jennings' absence, and the news division had two magazine series—20/20 and Primetime Live—on the schedule.
Now it's a much different place.
The gap between Today and GMA has widened again and likely will grow.
After some transitional shuttling between World News Tonight and GMA, Gibson's eventual departure will coincide with a likely boost at Today when ABC defector Meredith Vieira arrives. Moreover, GMA's uncertain future now hinges on co-host Diane Sawyer.
Westin told my colleague Allison Romano (see page 3) that Sawyer has a long-term deal. But word is that her pact leaves her an out in the not-too-distant future. Plus, she's retained entertainment lawyer/shark Allen Grubman—not a move you make if you're a happy camper. Odds are that Sawyer is a short-timer and will be toiling elsewhere this time next year. (My educated guess: CNN.)
And you don't have to be Einstein to know that Gibson wouldn't be going to World News Tonight if the ratings weren't slipping—the result, of course, of the ill-fated decision last December to make Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff co-anchors.
Obviously, no one could have foreseen that Woodruff would be gravely injured in Iraq only weeks later or that Vargas would become pregnant. Even so, I'd borrow money to bet that if World News Tonight's ratings were soaring with Vargas flying solo, she would not be leaving over a “difficult pregnancy.” If things were going well, ABC would gladly keep the anchor chair warm for her when she returns from maternity leave—just as NBC has done for Today hosts Jane Pauley and Katie Couric.
Then there's the future, or lack thereof, of newsmagazine Primetime. Amid the hoopla of ABC's fall schedule presentation a couple of weeks back, it was lost on many that Primetime didn't make the grid.
Granted, the newsmagazine too often wallowed in celebrity, tease and sleaze and was hardly a ratings blockbuster, but its absence was still a blow to the news division.
A memo from Westin, assuring the staff that the network was committed to 48 hours of Primetime special editions in the coming season, did little to ameliorate a sense that the division is adrift.
There's still Nightline, of course. In its punchier, post-Ted Koppel incarnation, it's actually drawing a bigger audience than anyone expected it would. But given the show's near-death experience in 2002, thanks to its corporate parent's antipathy toward news, who knows how much longer it'll be around, no matter how good it is.
Good luck, Charlie. Able as you are, you and ABC News are going to need it.
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