In a major and unexpected move, ABC News anchor Charles Gibson announced Wednesday that he will retire at the end of the year, and Diane Sawyer will become the anchor of ABC's "World News."
The 66-year-old Gibson said in an e-mail to ABC News staffers Wednesday that he had planned to retire as early as 2007 but that unexpected events in the news division resulted in him staying on. Longtime anchor Peter Jennings died in 2005, and then his replacement, Bob Woodruff, was seriously injured in Iraq in January 2006.
Gibson, a former congressional correspondent and co-host of "Good Morning America," has been a steadying influence on the flagship broadcast for ABC News. The 34-year veteran of ABC News says he will continue as a contributor after he steps down from the anchor desk and full-time status. But the details of that contributing arrangement have not been determined.
When the 63-year-old Sawyer, longtime co-anchor of "Good Morning America," takes over in January, two of three networks will be anchored by women. Sawyer has certainly earned the honor of anchoring the evening broadcast in a long career at CBS News on "60 Minutes" and at ABC News with the newsmagazine "Prime Time Live" before "Good Morning America." The morning show is a solid second in the ratings to NBC's "Today" show.
"There is no one like Charlie Gibson, and it is an enormous honor to be asked to join the terrific broadcast he and the great team of journalists have built at 'World News,' " Sawyer said Wednesday. "Until then, I'll be getting up early and spending mornings, as always, counting myself so lucky to be with Robin, Chris and Sam and the incredibly smart, talented and dedicated team of 'Good Morning America.' "
Given the declining audience and fortunes of the network evening newscasts, "Good Morning America" is actually the more lucrative program, so there is some risk in moving Sawyer. But Gibson came from "Good Morning America" as well, and the morning show managed to hold its audience.
"World News" was reeling in 2006 when Gibson stepped in. Jennings' death left a huge void in the news operation that ABC News President David Westin tried to fill by naming Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas co-anchors in December 2005, calling them anchors "for the digital age."
But Woodruff was seriously injured in January 2006, and Vargas announced in the spring that she was going on maternity leave. Gibson, who had been essentially passed over as Jennings' successor only a few months earlier, took over as anchor and managing editor in May, and not only brought stability to the newscast but also gave the program a ratings boost.
"World News" has consistently finished a strong second in the ratings during Gibson's tenure. "CBS Evening News With Katie Couric" finishes third.
"It has not been an easy decision to make," Gibson said in his e-mail to colleagues. "This has been my professional home for almost 35 years. And I love this news department, and all who work in it, to the depths of my soul."
Westin said in a statement that he and Gibson have been talking about the decision for several weeks and that Gibson "has persuaded me that this is both what he wants and what is best for him."
"I respect his decision, just as I respect the enormous contribution he has made to ABC News through the years," Westin said.
"Diane Sawyer is the right person to succeed Charlie and build on what he has accomplished," Westin said in a statement. "She has an outstanding and varied career in television journalism, beginning with her role as a State Department correspondent and continuing at '60 Minutes,' 'Primetime Live,' and most recently 'Good Morning America.' "
Vargas, who now serves as an anchor on the newsmagazine "20/20," could be a candidate to replace Sawyer. There is no shortage of capable journalists in-house, including Chris Cuomo, who has become a very strong presence on the show.