ABC changes tack with evening news

Charles Gibson to anchor show

Vargas to leave

May 24, 2006|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Still reeling from the death of anchorman Peter Jennings and the loss since last year of nearly a million viewers, ABC will aim the network's flagship World News Tonight in a new direction. Beginning Monday, Good Morning America co-host Charles Gibson will be at the helm and current co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas will leave the evening newscast.

ABC's moves, announced yesterday, signal an acute departure from the course initially set by News President David Westin, who in December named Vargas, 43, and Bob Woodruff, 44, as Jennings' successors, dubbing them co-anchors "for the digital age."

In a season defined by unprecedented change in broadcast journalism, Westin's actions suggest a re-evaluation of the wisdom of jettisoning longtime, older viewers to woo young adults, who are coveted by advertisers but less inclined to get their news from television. Gibson is 63 years old.

Equally surprising is the departure of Vargas, who is pregnant, from the anchor desk after only five months. She will return to ABC airwaves in September after maternity leave - but only as anchor of the prime-time newsmagazine 20/20, a position she has held for three years. Her last appearance as anchor of World News Tonight will be Friday.

"Going forward, Elizabeth has asked that we limit her responsibilities to anchoring 20/20 and some prime-time hours," Westin said in a statement detailing the shake-up.

"My doctors have asked that I cut back my schedule considerably," Vargas said in the ABC statement. "What works best for me and my family is that I return in the fall to 20/20, as I raise my new baby and young son. I have loved every day I spent at World News Tonight and have endless respect for my colleagues there. This broadcast needs someone who can give 150 percent - day in and day out. I am not in a position to do that right now."

Analysts expressed surprise at the swiftness with which Vargas was replaced.

"I am sure they got her to step down with an offer she could not refuse - same money, less work and her reputation is no longer linked to a sinking newscast," said Douglas Gomery, a media economist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "But the larger message here is that no longer is an anchor an anchor for 20 years as they were in the days of Cronkite, Brokaw or Jennings. This move by ABC clearly shows that Disney [owner of ABC] and the big media companies of today will change on a dime if the ratings are in a tailspin. And, by the way, they'll embrace old or young if they think that's where the ratings and revenue are going to be found."

Gibson, who was widely considered Jennings' heir apparent, was passed over in December for the job that would have made him the face of ABC News. The Princeton graduate was offered the job on a temporary basis - a proposition he refused - because ABC brass considered him too old and too valuable to Good Morning America.

After a month of appearing on both the morning and evening shows, Gibson will relinquish his Good Morning America post June 30 - opening the door for further changes at ABC.

Nonetheless, yesterday's announcements could provide ABC's news division with some much-needed stability. In the past five months, the department has been shaken by two unexpected events: Woodruff was wounded by a bomb blast in Iraq in January, an injury that will keep him off the air indefinitely, and Vargas' pregnancy.

"Elizabeth and I set out on a great adventure this year, and I am proud of what we accomplished," Woodruff said yesterday of the World News Tonight that debuted in January and featured the co-anchors. "Elizabeth had to shoulder an enormous job when I was injured, and she did it with grace. Charlie Gibson is a mentor and a friend. I look forward to contributing to this broadcast as soon as I'm able."

In addition to the turmoil at ABC, the success of 69-year-old Bob Schieffer at CBS has changed the way the industry views older newscasters. Most of the viewers lost by World News Tonight appear to have gone over to the CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer.

The veteran Washington journalist will be replaced at the CBS anchor desk in September by Katie Couric, 49, who leaves NBC's Today show May 31, and that impending change is also seen as a driving force in ABC's promotion of Gibson.

"Bob Schieffer put the lie to the age issue during this last year," said Lee Thornton, a professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland and former CBS White House correspondent. "No one knows if Schieffer's audience will stay with Katie Couric come September, but if you are offering an alternative in the same mold - an experienced, hard news anchor - in hopes of attracting those viewers, who better than Gibson?"

ABC's Westin described Gibson yesterday as "a superb broadcaster, the consummate professional and a very familiar presence to the audience and everyone at World News Tonight."

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