Monday, June 26, 2006

Tube roses & thorns III

The death of perky

We're still months from the dawn of the Couric Era of the CBS Evening News, but the Tiffany Network isn't wasting any time telling its viewers that a new day is at hand, and not. And who better to reassure the American public than the crusty, folksy, avuncular, plain-spoken anchor they've come to know and love -- Bob Schieffer?

For about a week now, CBS has been using Schieffer to prime the pump with promos heralding the big change. They're largely meant to dispel the idea that everything recognizable about the CBS Evening News will morph in September, when Couric takes over, permanently, the big chair vacated by Dan Rather in March 2005.

For one thing, Schieffer announces that when Couric comes aboard, he'll be going back to his old perch in Foggy Bottom as Washington correspondent, a post he occupied for years. Score one for continuity.

And then there's the image of the new Katie, something that's a telling visual epitaph for her "perky" persona. As Schieffer extols the virtues of "my friend Katie Couric," a short video clip comes up showing Couric, hair properly done, wearing a navy blue suit and a simple strand of pearls (Mikimoto, no doubt), an ensemble meant to convey the gravitas of her new position. Safe to say, folks, we've seen the last of perky Katie in a SpongeBob costume.

Whither Woodruff?

At least CBS has a succession plan in place, along with NBC, whose "Nightly News With Brian Williams" has been percolating nicely for more than eighteen months. ABC, however, has seen its plans for news anchor succession go up in clouds of smoke, one of those clouds from an IED in Iraq.

This all started on Jan. 29, when newly-crowned ABC news co-anchor Bob Woodruff and a colleague were wounded -- Woodruff seriously -- in an explosion near Taji, Iraq, about 12 miles north of Baghdad. Even while Woodruff recovered, there were new reports of infighting at ABC -- and new revelations that threw an already-chaotic process into further disarray.

Elizabeth Vargas, named with Woodruff as a co-anchor late last year, announced her intention to go on maternity leave, a disclosure that caught ABC brass by surprise.

The crazy to-and-fro finally resolved itself when Vargas resigned from ABC on May 23, citing her need to focus on the family she already had and the addition she was expecting. On May 29 ABC named Charles Gibson -- longtime mainstay of "Good Morning America" and a periodic "World News Tonight" substitute anchor after Peter Jennings' death -- to be the new sole anchor of "World News Tonight." ABC had gone through no fewer than three network news anchors in less than eighteen months.

Besides that unusual but still unsettling burn rate, ABC is facing a real dilemma: Now that they've invested money, prestige and branding to announce the ascension of Charles Gibson to the big chair ... what's to be done with Bob Woodruff, when he's ready to go back to work?

Woodruff was gracious, to be sure. In a statement on ABC News' Web site, Woodruff said "Charlie Gibson is a mentor and a friend. I look forward to contributing to his broadcast as soon as I'm able."

ABC News president David Westin, in a statement on the Web site the same day, said "Charlie's taking over 'World News Tonight' will give Bob Woodruff the extended period that he needs to recover and return to the air for ABC News. All of us look forward to that day, but it will be on Bob's timetable, not ours."

But get real: Having effectively kicked Woodruff to the curb, what kind of role has ABC/will ABC carve out for the man who started the year as the heir apparent to Peter Jennings? Unless that blast in Iraq relieved Woodruff of every shred of his professional ego, it's hard to imagine him embracing a third- or fourth-fiddle role his promotion last December suggests he'd never had had to accept.

Now as before ... stay tuned.

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