All’s not well at ABC News

May 28, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The house that visionary newsman Roone Arledge built is now home to a fractious and fractured ABC News family.
The days when networks could and did spend money as quickly as it was printed-and when Mr. Arledge was collecting all the news talent money could buy-are long gone.
Now it is ABC News trying to keep up with the Joneses at NBC and CBS, which were long ago forced to embrace the financial discipline required by parent companies that no longer looked at news as a golden child and free-spending spirit that was a source of pride even when it refused to be bound by life’s practicalities.
“Roone’s house of stars is the wrong model for these times,” said one network news executive.
In 1997, after 20 years of building ABC News from also-ran to invincible, and after repeatedly fending off corporate attempts to rein him in, Mr. Arledge was named chairman of ABC News, and David Westin, a lawyer turned network executive, was named president.
The last four years have not been easy for Mr. Westin, who has been unable to convince skeptics that he is the right man to steer ABC News through such turbulent and tricky times as these.
“Good Morning America,” which was the fattest of cash cows when the News division took it over in the mid-’90s, is now troubled by season-to-season ratings and demographics declines, despite the presence of Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson, who have been anchoring the show on a “temporary” basis for more than two years.
Ratings and demos also are down for flagship “World News Tonight” and the prime-time newsmagazine “20/20.”
“Everything everywhere is down,” said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. “There is a general decline of audiences across the board. We are still very competitive and putting on excellent programs.”
Mr. Schneider said the news division produces some 31 hours of programming a week-more than any other network entity.
ABC News will soon be doing it with fewer people. Some 85 employees have received approval to take the buyout offered by Disney in its attempt to eliminate 400 jobs from a worldwide staff of 4,000 by next month.
In addition to the buyouts, ABC News has opted not to renew the contracts of veteran correspondents, including Morton Dean, Sheila MacVicar and Sylvia Chase as part of a longer-range campaign to trim $15 million to $20 million a year from its closely held budget of several hundred million dollars.
Mr. Westin has made his share of mistakes-among them allowing Leonardo DiCaprio to play environmental journalist in a prime-time hour; letting Ms. Sawyer stand on her head to do an interview with Elian Gonzalez; tampering with the momentum and identity of ABC’s newsmagazines in a failed attempt to turn “20/20” into the all-purpose franchise that “Dateline” has become for NBC; and failing to restore the financial and ratings luster to “GMA,” despite his building a spiffy new Times Square studio that reportedly ran as much as $30 million over budget.
But the buyouts and cutbacks are one of the prices being paid companywide for some costly choices made by parent company Disney, among them the attempt to make a go of Go.com, the Internet portal that forced the cancellation of ABC News’ plans to launch a cable news channel and cost ABC News a content relationship with America Online in 1998.
Another corporate decision that has had a dramatic impact on ABC News is the relocation of the network’s headquarters to Burbank, Calif., effectively reducing ABC News to a bureau in New York.
Two weeks ago the distance between ABC News and the power structure in Burbank was graphically illustrated when ABC and Disney executives informed Mr. Westin that “20/20” and ABC News icon Barbara Walters were going to be moved out of their Friday night home of 14 years to give the Disney-owned drama “Once and Again” another shot at finding an audience.
In the days since, Ms. Walters has let her public know that the five-year, multimillion-dollar contract she signed only last year has a December 2002 window in which she can opt to change roles at ABC News.
And the industry has speculated endlessly and breathlessly about what the programming decision says about the standing of news in general and Mr. Westin in particular. Executives firmly deny the recurring rumors that Mr. Westin is on the hit list of recently returned ABC Television President Steve Bornstein, but the rumors persist.