ABC News Closes in On Anchor Duo

Oct 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

While it is not finalized and could change, ABC News is moving toward naming Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas as the permanent co-anchors of “World News Tonight,” succeeding the late Peter Jennings, according to informed sources.

Such a decision would be a blow to Charles Gibson, the current co-host of “Good Morning America,” who has been filling in on “World News Tonight,” and frequently acting as the face of ABC News on big breaking stories. Mr. Gibson, 62, is believed to want the “World News Tonight” anchor job which would cap a distinguished career that has earned him widespread respect within ABC News and beyond.

If he doesn’t get the job, sources said Mr. Gibson would likely stay with “GMA” for another year and a half, and then might leave the network. ABC, a division of the Walt Disney Company, has been hesitant to move Mr. Gibson away from “GMA” at a time he and co-hosts Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts have led a strong resurgence for the hugely profitable morning program which has moved it closer in the ratings to NBC’s “Today Show” than it has been in a decade.

An ABC News spokesman on Friday told TelevisionWeek that no decisions about “World News Tonight” have been made and because things are going so well, there is no pressure to move quickly. “Your story is wrong,” said Jeffrey W. Schneider, VP and spokesman for ABC News. “To be clear, no decision has been made. At best your sources are ill-informed gossips. At worst, your sources know they don’t know what they are talking about. We are in no rush to make this decision. When we are prepared to make an announcement, we will make one.”

However, well-connected sources inside ABC and other sources in the TV news circle say that ABC News hopes to beat CBS News to the punch by rolling out a younger-generation flagship newscast. Mr. Woodruff, who is 43, is seen as the epitome of that future. The ABC News spokesman said that what CBS does is not a factor in when ABC News will make its changes. Mr. Woodruff and Ms. Vargas have often anchored “World News Tonight,” as has Mr. Gibson, since Peter Jennings announced he had been diagnosed with lung cancer in April. Mr. Jennings died in early August.

Inside ABC News, many regard Mr. Woodruff as a worthy successor to Mr. Jennings. He is a polished newsman who has reported from Iraq, New Orleans, the South Pacific tsunami or, as he did earlier this year, from inside North Korea.

Although Ms. Vargas, 42, who co-anchors “20/20” with John Stossel, has done several serious prime-time specials and reportedly has the enthusiastic backing of ABC News Senior VP Paul Slavin, she does not have the widespread rank-and-file support that Mr. Woodruff does. There is speculation that Mr. Woodruff often might be deployed in the field on big stories with Ms. Vargas at the anchor desk.

“World News Tonight” has been closing in on “NBC Nightly News” since last year, before Tom Brokaw turned the anchor desk over to Brian Williams, and “World News Tonight” edged “Nightly” in the 25-54 demographic for the just-concluded third quarter.

Meanwhile, there is speculation that pieces are falling into place for the next generation of “Nightline.” Anchor Ted Koppel and executive producer Tom Bettag will leave the show and the network at the end of December. Informed sources said “primetime>live” correspondent and legal analyst Cynthia McFadden would take the anchor role held since 1979 by Mr. Koppel. Under this scenario, Terry Moran, who now covers the White House, would be a “Nightline” correspondent; and Jim Avila, the former NBC News correspondent who joined ABC News in 2004, and since has broken a number of big news stories, may succeed Mr. Moran on the White House beat.

Veteran investigative journalist Martin Bashir, who joined “20/20” in September, 2004, is also expected to be assigned as a “Nightline” correspondent.

The ABC News spokesman dismissed possible changes on “Nightline” as speculation.

Mr. Woodruff, who trained as a lawyer and is a veteran foreign correspondent, is currently also an anchor on ABC News’ “World News Tonight Saturday.” He moved to New York in 2002 after working for ABC in London.

Ms. Vargas joined Mr. Stossel as co-anchor of “20/20” in September, 2004. She has anchored numerous ABC News specials, including several one-hour “Vanished” reports and a “Child First Safety Special.” She joined ABC from NBC News, where she was a correspondent and substitute anchor for “Dateline NBC” and “Today,” and also a substitute anchor for NBC Nightly News’ weekend editions.