Eight days after the death of Peter Jennings, ABC News changed the title yesterday of its flagship newscast from World News Tonight with Peter Jennings to World News Tonight. The move was made with consultation and caution, according to ABC News President David Westin.
"After consulting with Kayce [Jennings' wife] and family, we concluded that leaving the broadcast's title as it was through last Friday was an appropriate tribute to Peter," Westin wrote in an e-mail sent to the staff at ABC News yesterday. "But, of all people, Peter insisted on accuracy. As much as we would have it otherwise, from now on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings will be known as World News Tonight."
ABC News has moved with extreme care since Jennings announced April 5 that he was temporarily leaving the airwaves to start chemotherapy for lung cancer. Officially, network publicists declined to discuss any aspect of Jennings' illness or the matter of succession at the anchor desk. Instead, the suggestion - often even made off-the-record by longtime contacts within the news division - was that Jennings was expected to return to the airwaves.
The reticence continued yesterday with an ABC spokeswoman reporting that the network had nothing to say on the matter of Jennings' replacement. As reported in The Sun last week, the leading candidate is 62-year-old Charles Gibson, who has been sharing World News Tonight anchoring duties since April with Elizabeth Vargas, the 42-year-old co-host of the newsmagazine 20/20.
Gibson has been in the anchor's seat for every instance of special event coverage - including the announcement of Jennings' death Aug. 7. Making the choice more complicated than it might seem, however, is the fear that permanently removing Gibson from his job as co-host of Good Morning America could harm the ratings for that show. The morning show is far more lucrative than the evening news, which operates in the red.
Westin was careful in yesterday's e-mail to stress that the change in title for World News Tonight was not intended to suggest a break from the values that Jennings helped instill as senior editor of the newscast.
"Let me be clear," he wrote, "the unrelenting standards, the demanding focus on broadcasting the news from around the world, and an unwavering commitment to fairness that were the hallmarks of Peter's career remain the core values of World News Tonight. ... The tributes celebrating Peter's life and career have served to remind each and every one of us of the powerful legacy he leaves behind."