Monday, September 7, 2009

ABC’s extreme news makeover

Come January, we can look forward to another resounding crack in the glass ceiling that’s locked out women and minorities from the loftier realms of network news.

That’s when Diane Sawyer, long a bridesmaid at ABC News, takes the helm of “ABC World News,” replacing the stalwart, reliable Charles Gibson in the anchor chair. Gibson, at the post since May 2006, is set to retire at the end of the year.

Sawyer, whose career started in the Nixon White House, jumped to the CBS News Washington bureau, where she was a State Department reporter, and later a correspondent for the flagship CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” From there she went to ABC as the host of “Prime Time Live” and later “Good Morning America,” where she worked with Gibson.

“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 in a statement Wednesday. “Until then, I'll be getting up early.”

The Sawyer shift is likely to be part of a makeover for ABC News, still languishing in second place; the move certainly represents a makeover for the TV news business, one that’s been under way for a while.

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Sawyer will become only the third permanent female news anchor in the history of the medium. Connie Chung briefly held a permanent gig in a tandem with Dan Rather at CBS; Katie Couric holds the anchor desk spot at the “CBS Evening News.”

Brian Williams, the white male at the helm at NBC News, is presumably secure in his post (his five-year contract, certain to be renewed, expires in December). But throughout the mediascape, cable and broadcast, there have been signs that the high priests of electronic media are getting the message that diversity is more meaningful than cosmetics or political correctness.

At NBC, Lester Holt, the network’s sole African American anchor, takes charge of the weekend program; Russ Mitchell does the same for weekend coverage at CBS. Over at MSNBC, black newsreaders Tamron Hall and Carlos Watson are mainstays of daytime programming. And CNN, whose “Black in America” series garnered high praise and viewership, is planning to debut its “Latino in America” series in October.

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Gibson took charge at ABC in the wake of the death of Peter Jennings, and after a protracted period of indecision by ABC brass about who to replace Jennings permanently. Plans for a tandem of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas were scuttled when Woodruff was seriously wounded in an attack in Iraq. Vargas eventually bowed out due to maternity leave.

Gibson stepped in and gave the network both the stability of a familiar face and some clout in political coverage (Gibson was previously an ABC congressional correspondent). As anchor, Gibson gave the ABC broadcast a recognizable persona and helped restore its flagging ratings. “World News” is now in second place, behind Williams and the “NBC Nightly News.”

"I think the thing that Charlie felt — and I couldn't argue with him — is that he had accomplished what he set out to accomplish," said ABC News President David Westin, to National Public Radio.

"It has not been an easy decision to make,” Gibson wrote in an e-mail to colleagues, one ABC released publicly. “This has been my professional home for almost 35 years … I love this news department, and all who work in it, to the depths of my soul."

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One inevitable question arises: Was Gibson pushed out? The New York Daily News’ David Hinckley and Cristina Kinon think not: “By all indications, no. He's 66, his wife is retired, and he told the staff he wants to join her.

“In fact, he originally planned to retire on May 22, 2007,” Hinckley and Kinon write. “After [Jennings] died in August 2005, Gibson declined ABC's offer to replace him - Gibson reportedly wanted a longer contract than ABC offered.

“But Vargas got pregnant and Woodruff got injured … so in May 2006, Gibson agreed to step in. It's not surprising that having been ready to retire once, he would get ready again.”

But there may have been hard feelings. Rebecca Dana, at The Daily Beast, reported that: "Although they worked closely for more than a decade, Gibson makes no direct reference to Sawyer in the statement, and a source close to the departing anchor described him as 'livid' that she’s succeeding him."

And there's the other question: What’s this jumping of the TV-news gender shark mean for ABC’s prospects with viewers?

Officially, and understandably, it’s a non-issue. “I don't make decisions based on gender,” Westin told the Daily News. But that statement can’t obscure how things have changed in the news business, or how likely they are to keep changing. With Sawyer’s ascension, wonder of wonders: Two of the usual Three Wise Men of the major broadcast networks won’t be men at all. Stay tuned.
Image credits: Bush and Sawyer: White House (public domain). Couric: Still from CBS News broadcast. Gibson top: Promo from ABC News. Gibson bottom: Still from 2008 ABC News broadcast.

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