By Elizabeth Jensen
The news came out of the blue, just before Labor Day weekend, as though ABC News had something to hide: Charlie Gibson, 66, plans to step down at the end of the year as anchor of “World News,” and Diane Sawyer, 63, will take his place.
The unexpected switch leaves the network with a hole in the more profitable morning, where Sawyer has kept the network a competitive No. 2 for 10 years. For the evening newscast ABC News President David Westin promised a seamless transition. In an interview with the New York Times he phrased it as “the DNA of the newscast will not change,” although several ABC News insiders said there was considerable nervousness that the new anchor will want to shake up the producing staff.
With Gibson’s decision to cut back from daily work, Sawyer, who by dint of the post will also be the face of ABC News, becomes the last of the Roone Arledge-groomed ABC News stars still standing, said Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the nightly newscasts at www.tyndallreport.com. (Among others, Peter Jennings and David Brinkley have passed away, Ted Koppel left the network, and Barbara Walters now devotes most of her energies to the morning show “The View.”)
Sawyer will inherit a program that is currently second in the ratings to the “NBC Nightly News,” anchored by Brian Williams, with CBS’ “Evening News,” anchored by Katie Couric, a distant third. After Gibson stepped into the anchor job in 2006 — replacing Bob Woodruff, who was injured in Iraq, and co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, who became pregnant — the broadcast at one point surpassed that of NBC, but it has since fallen off.
As a whole, the evening newscasts continue to wane in the face of online news and changing lifestyles, drawing a combined 21 million to 23 million on average each night this summer.
The institution of the evening newscast in that time slot “is in irreversible decline,” Tyndall said. The role of an evening news anchor, he said, “is to try and grow a multiplatform online new media audience faster than the traditional old media audience declines.”
He continued: “Your job isn’t to corral aging baby boomers for another five years; it’s to use the visibility you do have in that time slot to work out how to showcase your institution so there can be buzz about it, so that it can thrive in the next decade.” He said he is unsure whether Sawyer “has that expertise.”
Inevitably, the move was seen by some commentators through the lens of gender. Although Sawyer will be the fifth woman to have held a permanent anchor seat at one of the commercial network evening newscasts (after Walters, Connie Chung, Vargas and Couric), it will be the first time two women anchors air opposite each other at the same time. (Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill will also become permanent rotating co-anchors with Jim Lehrer of PBS’ “NewsHour” this fall.)
“I’m very pleased for her, she’s been waiting forever for it,” said Susan Stamberg, a National Public Radio correspondent. But as the first U.S. woman to anchor a national daily news program (outside of the morning shows), when she was named host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” in 1972, Stamberg said the focus on the Couric-Sawyer matchup seemed like “a throwback. You’d think another woman anchor would be a little ho-hum, congratulations.”
Women made early gains at NPR, Stamberg noted, “largely for economic reasons;” they tolerated the low salaries that men wouldn’t. But NPR may have had the last laugh. Noted Tyndall: “The only major news organizations to have grown in the last three decades are NPR and Fox News Channel.”