New faces for the digital age

Naming of Vargas, Woodruff as ABC anchors no surprise

December 06, 2005|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

ABC extended a hand yesterday to what it hopes will be a new generation of news consumers by naming Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff to succeed the late Peter Jennings as co-anchors of World News Tonight.

Vargas, 43, and Woodruff, 44, also will lead the network as it expands onto the Internet and into the digital age: Beginning Jan. 3, they will serve as anchors for network TV's first live version of a newscast for West Coast viewers -- as well as a live daily Webcast for ABCNews.com.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section contained an incorrect educational history for ABC News' Bob Woodruff. He received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

While all three major networks offer Webcasts and routinely update their news reports during the three-hour lag between East and West coasts, ABC is the first broadcaster to require that its news anchors deliver the new reports live.

The move, which was widely expected, is indicative of sweeping changes in how networks view their newscasts, once their flagship programs but now struggling because of competition from 24-hour cable news, the Internet and aging audiences. It also is a direct response to the increased popularity of on-demand programming.

"Elizabeth and Bob together will be anchors for this new broadcast and digital age of World News Tonight," said David Westin, president of ABC News. "Their experience as journalists, their familiarity to our audiences and their commitment to gathering and delivering the news anywhere, anytime and in every way make them the right team to take us forward into the next generation." Vargas will do double duty for the network -- continuing as co-anchor of ABC's primetime newsmagazine, 20/20.

Reiterating the network's desire to offer viewers newscasts when -- and how -- they want them, Westin said: "Now we will be providing that news live throughout the evening on television. Now we will be making that news available to Americans throughout the afternoon and evening to those who want it over computers, mobile phones and the countless other digital means."

Westin's comments provide clues to why 62-year-old Charles Gibson, considered by many to be Jennings' heir apparent, was not chosen. Gibson, who has shared World News Tonight anchoring duties with Vargas since Jennings left the airwaves in April, will return to co-anchoring Good Morning America with Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts."[Westin] understands that network news cannot survive as a bottom-of-the-dinner-hour artifact of a cultural structure that no longer exists," said Rich Hanley, a professor in the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "His mantra of `anywhere, anytime and in every way' matches the need for news programming and its anchors to be ubiquitous."

The success of Good Morning America also is crucial to ABC: The early show attracts an audience that often will stay with the network throughout the day. That fact also played a role in the decision not to name Gibson to the anchor position, analysts say.

"Among the three people who were under consideration, Charlie Gibson has the most documented history of success, and if this were a five-year appointment, he may have gotten it," said Bob Zelnick, former ABC News Pentagon correspondent who now is chairman of the University of Boston's Department of Journalism. "But Charlie's in his 60s, and they were interested in a move that is going to be competitive in the long-term, because that's what [NBC anchorman] Brian Williams is, and that is presumably what Katie Couric would be [at CBS]."

Zelnick characterized the move as both bold and safe. "It was aggressive in terms of going with the double anchor and Elizabeth Vargas, and it was conservative in keeping an asset like Charlie Gibson, who is a superb newsman, basically where they know he can continue to contribute."

Woodruff and Vargas have served as correspondents and weekend anchors of World News Tonight. Woodruff, an attorney before joining the network, worked out of ABC's London bureau and has covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Peter Jennings set a standard for all of us in journalism to meet," Woodruff said in a statement. "Following in his path as co-anchor of this broadcast is a weighty challenge, but it's an opportunity for Elizabeth and me to help assure that the broadcast lives up to his ideals."

The appointment of Vargas and Woodruff leaves only CBS among the major networks without a permanent news anchor. Since Dan Rather stepped down from that position in March, Bob Schieffer, 66, has acted as interim anchorman. CBS now is avidly pursuing NBC's Couric for the job.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Bob Woodruff

Occupation: co-anchor ABC World News Tonight

Age: 44

Education: B.A., Cornell University and J.D., University of Michigan

Awards: Peabody and DuMont

Elizabeth Vargas

Occupation: co-anchor 20/20 and ABC World News Tonight

Age: 43

Education: B.A. Journalism, University of Missouri

Awards: Emmy

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