ABC faces fateful decision on anchor

August 09, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The death of newsman Peter Jennings from lung cancer could affect the future of television news programs on every network and cable station, as well as test ABC's resourcefulness and judgment as it moves toward naming his successor as the anchor on its flagship World News Tonight.

Jennings, whose death on Sunday came only months after the retirement of both CBS' Dan Rather and NBC's Tom Brokaw, was the last network anchor to have been welcomed every evening into tens of millions of American homes, and whenever national emergencies arose. With his death, all three networks now face the challenge of reinventing their evening broadcasts -- and the risk of getting it wrong.

"What's also at stake in the succession of Peter Jennings is the future of broadcast journalism itself," said Joe Angotti, former senior vice president of NBC News.

"They can look at ratings and personality and all of that, but one of the greatest contributions that Peter made to ABC News was his editorial contributions. He was a very thoughtful and good editor in addition to being a successful anchorman. And his high standards as senior editor spread to the whole news organization -- and, to some extent, network TV."

During Jennings' 22-year tenure at the anchor desk of World News Tonight, the broadcast rose to No. 1 in ratings and became known for its commitment to international reporting and coverage of major breaking news -- even after the arrival of 24-hour all-news cable TV.

That news presence and prestige was a direct result of Jennings, according to CNN anchorman Aaron Brown, who worked at ABC News from 1991 to 2001. "It gets harder and harder to get serious, consequential material on the air or in print. And one of the things about having veteran anchors like Peter is that, within their organizations, they had a lot of clout. Sometimes they could get things on the air simply because it was the right thing to do."

Jennings' death leaves network TV without that moral authority. "They don't have that kind of history anymore -- any of them -- where they have an anchor who says, `No, we're going to do Bosnia, because it's the right thing to do,'" Brown said.

As he considers a replacement for Jennings, ABC News President David Westin knows that his decision could have a ripple effect on other facets of the network. When Jennings announced in April that he had lung cancer, Westin moved swiftly to name Charles Gibson, co-host of Good Morning America, and Elizabeth Vargas, co-host of the primetime newsmagazine 20/20, as substitute anchors on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.

Gibson, the more experienced of the two, was the one at the anchor desk Sunday night when ABC broadcast a special report on Jennings death, and it is expected that he will succeed Jennings.

"Charles Gibson is the logical choice to succeed Jennings," said Douglas Gomery, media economist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It makes sense in a number of ways -- particularly in terms of image and prestige. Gibson gives you more a sense of continuity with Jennings than anyone else."

But moving Gibson into the anchor desk at World News Tonight would also weaken Good Morning America, a program that makes tens of millions of dollars instead of losing money as the evening newscast does.

"Charlie is great on television, and he's spent more time in the job than anyone else," said John McLaughlin, a former CBS News bureau chief in Beirut who now teaches broadcast news at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

"The question then is: What happens without Charlie on Good Morning America, which makes more money for the network than the evening news? McLaughlin said. "And, then, after that, what about the larger forces turning news into entertainment everywhere on television? Peter Jennings was one of the last of the broadcast journalists trying to hold back the tide, and my guess is that no matter who succeeds him, ABC News is in for a major journalistic break with the past."

ABC News declined comment yesterday on succession plans at the World News Tonight anchor desk. But network executives and their corporate owners at Disney have been encouraged by the ratings generated with Gibson and Vargas.

During the last four months, World News Tonight consistently has beaten NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic. (The overall audience for the televised evening news is so old that 25-to-54-year-olds are considered a key demographic; typically the target audience is between the ages of 18 and 49.)

NBC still leads with an overall audience of 8.26 million viewers. But since December, when Williams succeeded Brokaw, ABC, which now has an audience of 7.59 million, has narrowed the gap by 34 percent.

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