ABC’s ‘World News’ Going Multimedia

Dec 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

ABC News is counting on new media to ensure that its new anchor team reaches a new audience.

Last week ABC officially named Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff to anchor “World News Tonight” (TelevisionWeek, Oct. 3). They succeed Peter Jennings, who died of lung cancer in August.

Ms. Vargas and Mr. Woodruff will first appear as the new “World News” co-anchors on the Jan. 3 telecast.

With the network evening newscasts on a long streak of losing viewers, ABC is looking to expand “World News Tonight” beyond 6:30 p.m. (ET) through new media. A newscast will run online in the afternoon, and stories from “WNT” will be available both before and after the newscast airs on the network.

“The idea is to spread the content of ‘World News Tonight’ throughout the day,” said “WNT” executive producer Jon Banner.

That will enable “WNT” to serve a new audience. Some of those viewers might then decide to tune in on their local ABC station. But even if they aren’t the type of people who are in front of the set at that hour, “If we’re reaching that audience online, that’s also a success in our book,” Mr. Banner said.

ABC plans to redesign the “WNT” section of its Web site and add features such as extended versions of anchor packages and special reports, unaired portions of interviews, round-the-clock news updates and a daily blog called “The Blue Sheet,” to which the anchors and other staffers will contribute.

“WNT” is also going to produce three television feeds each night, so that viewers in the Eastern, Mountain and Western time zones will be able to get a fresh, live broadcast.

“We’ve been updating the West Coast [telecast] sporadically for a long time, but in a 24-hour news cycle that doesn’t give you as much opportunity as you would like in giving the freshest content to our West Coast viewers,” Mr. Banner said. He said he expects that on some days the lead story of the East Coast broadcast will be different from the lead story of the West Coast broadcast.

Rival news executives scoffed at ABC’s plan to have a West Coast newscast, saying it would be expensive and that on most nights the update would be minimal.

“If you don’t really staff up, it’s a good way to burn out your staff,” said one news executive. But he added that if just once ABC is able to get a big story on the air for the West Coast that its rivals don’t have, the other networks might be forced to follow.

“There is some cost in terms of manpower, but I think the concern that we had is being able to provide a live broadcast to the West Coast, and the costs are manageable,” Mr. Banner said.

ABC veteran Charlie Gibson, who has been filling in on “WNT” in rotation with Ms. Vargas and Mr. Woodruff since the departure of Mr. Jennings, was reportedly approached about taking the anchor job permanently but was given an offer he couldn’t accept by ABC management. Mr. Gibson wanted to anchor through the 2008 election, but ABC proposed a two-year deal, with Ms. Vargas and Mr. Woodruff taking over at that point. “We simply agreed to disagree,” Mr. Gibson was quoted as saying.

Both Ms. Vargas and Mr. Woodruff said they are honored to follow in Mr. Jennings’ footsteps and that they expect “WNT” to maintain a focus on international news. “It’s called ‘World News Tonight’ for a reason. We do international news as well as domestic news and we cover stories all over the globe,” Ms. Vargas said.

The two-anchor format will allow both anchors to spend time reporting in the field. On Dec. 1, ABC News President David Westin wanted to tell both of them about their new assignment in person, but while Mr. Woodruff was able to return from an assignment on the Gulf Coast, Ms. Vargas had to head to New Orleans for a story and got the news via speakerphone.

That’s likely to be a preview of what their newscast will frequently be like, with at least one of them away from ABC News headquarters in New York.

“For me it’s kind of a perfect world because I don’t have to leave the story and the field reporting, and Elizabeth feels the same way,” Mr. Woodruff said. “In fact, you’re going to see her in Iraq [this] week. This will allow us to get out there and report and not be shackled all the time to a seat.”

Their jobs will be more time-consuming due to the West Coast feed and added Internet duties.

“More and more people are using more and more emerging technology to watch things, listen to things, keep abreast of things. And incidentally, many of those people who use those technologies are younger and haven’t been traditionally watching news broadcasts and haven’t been sampling as of yet,” Ms. Vargas said. “We need to recognize that things are changing.”

Mr. Woodruff said he plans to take part in the blogging. “People want to know how this sausage is being made, and I think it gives them a better idea of who you are and what you’re about, too, when you let them in a little bit on the process,” he said.

As for being a woman and only 43, Ms. Vargas said, “I’m not a father figure. I’m never going to be that,” noting that Mr. Jennings wasn’t an éminence grise when he first took the helm at “WNT.” But that’s not necessary, she said. “I feel lucky that the audience feels comfortable with me. They trust me and I hope to continue to win their trust.”