Tuesday, May 23, 2006


The big news today is that there are big changes happening at ABC News. Charles Gibson is the new sole anchor of World News Tonight, beginning next month, and is leaving Good Morning America. Out is Elizabeth Vargas, after five months at the anchor chair. Also out is Bob Woodruff, still recuperating from his injuries suffered from that roadside bomb in Iraq. He will be welcomed back to the broadcast first as a correspondent, whenever he returns to full health. The expectation is he will eventually get the anchor chair back if he's well enough, maybe as Gibson's successor.

This isn't very surprising news, the stories and the rumors have been going on for weeks now that this change was going to happen. People were starting to question the direction of ABC News and criticized the apparent lack of leadership over there, from the President of the news division right on down. The evening newscast has been totally rudderless for a year now, ever since Peter Jennings was first diagnosed with lung cancer. It took them forever to make a decision on a new anchor team to replace him, and it's taken them forever to figure out what to do about replacing the injured Bob Woodruff and replacing Elizabeth Vargas, who was going to have to leave the broadcast anyway because of her pregnancy. The papers were filled with stories about Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer all manuevering for the evening news anchor job and it was getting to be pretty embarrassing for everyone concerned. It made Sawyer look like a diva, it undermined Elizabeth Vargas, and it made the whole news division look like a train wreck.

Vargas sent out a statement claiming that she's leaving the anchor chair on her doctor's advice because she cannot take on the full commitment to the anchor chair at World News Tonight. Sure, and the moon is made of green cheese.

It is pretty obvious to me Vargas was pushed out, for the most obvious reason possible: ratings. It was bad enough that CBS got a lot of buzz by naming Katie Couric their new anchor. But then two weeks ago the nightmare scenario came true when the CBS Evening News, under lame-duck anchor Bob Schieffer, beat World News Tonight in the ratings for the first time in, well, ages. That's a third-place finish for WNT for the first time in years, with Katie Couric not even on the air at CBS yet!

So much for this theory that this new, young anchor team would attract young people to watch ABC News. They figured that ABC News was going to develop this young next-generation anchor team, and that it was better off for ABC to keep Charlie Gibson marooned at Good Morning America, because that was where the money was in TV news and where the stars of TV news needed to be these days, and the evening newscasts aren't important anymore anyways, and so on and so forth.

But then ABC News discovered that the evening newscasts were pretty important after all. The Katie Couric defection to CBS from the Today Show changed the game for ABC. By turning down a big boatful of money to stay at NBC, Katie Couric made it clear to everyone what she thought the prestige gig was in her estimation. Morning television is great, but the evening news is where the A-list people go, and Katie Couric made that abundantly clear. ABC found its strategy of keeping all its A-list people stuck at GMA was out of step with where the business was going.

Moreover, WNT was left exposed to the competition thanks to this strategy. Developing a next-generation team of news anchors was a great long-term strategy. The problem was it needed to work in the short term before you could even think of it working long-term. Bob Woodruff got injured, and ABC discovered quickly that Elizabeth Vargas was out of her league as a solo anchor. She didn't have the buzz that Katie had, and she lacked the hard-news credibility and experience of Brian Williams or Bob Schieffer. She looked like a B-lister in a job meant for an A-list veteran. ABC News even had to bring in their two big guns, Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, from Good Morning America to co-anchor and help her out on special events like the State of the Union. That made her look really bad, as if she couldn't carry a show. I even wrote about that whole episode and declared: "it sucks to be Elizabeth Vargas".

Most important, though, her ratings have stunk. That's why she's out of there in record time. What a total debacle this has turned out to be at ABC. I wonder if Vargas might receive a phone call from Kevin Newman, who himself got pulled off hosting duties at Good Morning America in record time, all because of bad ratings. Newman knows what it's like to be laid low by this business. He might want to tell Vargas to hang in there, and don't let the bastards get you down. Or something.

This has further cemented the reputation of the anchor chair at ABC News as the "chair of doom". So many of its anchors- pretty much all of them, when you think of it- have either (a) died, or (b) been fired/demoted. At least Vargas is leaving with her health still intact. But still, to be pulled and demoted after only five months as anchor of World News Tonight--- what else is there to say? It's pretty humiliating.

As for Charles Gibson finally taking over the anchor spot that ought to have been his from the beginning, all I've got to say is why the heck didn't they just give him the job to begin with? They could have simply given him the job last year, after Peter Jennings died, and saved themselves this year of instability at that broadcast. But then, of course, they wanted to keep him at Good Morning America. They had their reasons for keeping Gibson there, and we see now where that strategy got them: nowhere. ABC wasted an entire year chasing the Today Show, a year they could have spent stabilizing World News Tonight with Charles Gibson. They could have replaced Gibson in the mornings and the audience would have had a full year to get used to his replacement in advance of the big changes coming at NBC's Today Show. Now, they have to find a new co-host for GMA with no head-start over NBC, nothing. The second-guessers are having a field day with what's gone down over there.

Now ABC has finally settled on Charles Gibson at World News Tonight, figuring his experience will give them the "credibility" in the anchor chair that CBS will apparently put at risk by going with Katie Couric. The TV news pundits figure a lot of people will bolt CBS to watch Gibson once Bob Schieffer leaves, because these viewers will think Couric's some sort of tabloid artist. And they are probably right. In the experience and credibility department, Gibson has Couric all beat in my estimation and in the estimation of a lot of other people. He has proven experience getting good ratings and covering the big stories. It made no sense to continue to deny Gibson the evening news anchor chair that he wanted, especially when CBS was handing their anchor seat over to his chief rival morning show host Katie Couric for millions of dollars.

Again, the folks at Disney could have installed Gibson last fall and saved themselves a lot of trouble. ABC had their man all along with Gibson, and they just plain blew it. The succession plan at ABC News has been a mess.

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