Depending on anchor's `steadying presence'

Veteran newsman Charles Gibson adjusts to big changes as he takes the top spot on ABC's `World News Tonight'

Spotlight

June 25, 2006|By MATEA GOLD | MATEA GOLD,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- Charles Gibson is still getting used to the idea of being in charge.

The veteran newsman has plenty of experience in anchoring ABC's evening newscast (he's been filling in since at least 1998) but when he officially took the helm of World News Tonight at the end of May, he found that it required some adjusting.

As a substitute anchor, "it was a little bit like being a grandparent: You could play with the baby and enjoy it and have a terrific time, and if you screwed up, you were always going to be able to give the kid back," he said on a recent afternoon on the set in the bustling newsroom. Now, "if I screw it up, I've got to fix it."

For one thing, the program's staff now looks to him for the final word on what should go in the broadcast. Gibson - a product of Quaker education who still occasionally attends worship meetings - said he's more accustomed to that faith's tradition of group decision-making.

"In meetings, we're sort of sitting around and I think we've reached consensus and everybody turns to me and says, `OK, what are you going to do?'" he said. "I'm beginning to find out that one guy is more equal than others."

After nearly two decades of handling the lighter fare of Good Morning America and faithfully serving as a backup player for longtime anchor Peter Jennings, the 63-year-old has been thrust into a new role as the face of ABC News. The network is running a new ad campaign trumpeting Gibson as "your trusted source," and morning show producers are preparing a celebration of his years on GMA that will air Wednesday, his last day on the program.

`He cares a lot'

Decidedly old-fashioned, the newsman dismisses the current angst in the industry about the need for a new anchor model for modern audiences, saying flatly that his job is simply to deliver the best summary of the day's news.

"One of his great talents is an ability to connect in an authentic way that's not a calculation or made-for-TV event," said Ben Sherwood, the departing executive producer of GMA. "He's a great interviewer, and he cares a lot, and the audience sees that. The audience also knows when Charlie doesn't care for a particular guest or when he's not enthused about a particular segment or story. That's the way he is - it's right out there."

It remains to be seen whether Gibson can help boost the audience of second-place World News Tonight, which has shrunk by about 900,000 this season. So far, he's anchoring only four nights a week while pulling double duty in the morning.

During his first two weeks in the post, the broadcast drew a little more than 7 million viewers on average, according to Nielsen Media Research, down from the 7.5 million who tuned in the last week Elizabeth Vargas served as anchor.

But for the staff of World News Tonight - whiplashed by Jennings' death and the wounding in Iraq of one of his successors, Bob Woodruff - Gibson's appointment has meant the much-needed arrival of a steady presence behind the desk.

"It's a big relief," said executive producer Jon Banner.

A `political junkie'

Gibson, who joined ABC in 1975, admits he had always quietly contemplated the evening news post from afar, with little hope of getting it.

"I had never expected to do this job," he said. "Peter was going to be anchor for life."

Gibson's move to World News Tonight has meant serious ramifications for GMA, which is going to be left without a male co-anchor just as executives had hoped to take on NBC's Today, which lost Katie Couric to CBS last month.

Gibson said he has no plans to make substantial changes to the newscast. A former White House correspondent, he's a "political junkie," so Washington news will likely get substantial play, he said, as will international news.

Matea Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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