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ABC Hopeful About Woodruff’s Return

Feb 6, 2006  •  Post A Comment

While the prognosis for injured ABC “World News Tonight” co-anchor Bob Wodruff was vague at the close of last week, the newscast’s executive producer, Jon Banner, said he is proceeding as if Mr. Woodruff will be back on the job before long.

“If anybody tells you whether or not Bob is coming back, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Mr. Banner said at the end of a long and emotional week that started with the news that Mr. Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt had been seriously injured by a roadside bomb blast and insurgent attack in Iraq, and ended with the two being treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. ABC News is paying the medical bills.

“We’re happy to see them both progress,” Mr. Banner said. “We have every expectation and hope that Bob will be back. That’s what we’re planning for. There’s no plan for any other scenario. He’s coming back and going to pick up where he left off and be anchor of this broadcast.”

In the meantime, Mr. Banner was trying to work out a schedule for “Good Morning America” co-hosts Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer to sit in for Mr. Woodruff on the newscast with his co-anchor, Elizabeth Vargas.

“It’s obviously a little more complex than just what ‘World News Tonight’ wants. We have to have ‘GMA’ be a part of this because they have significant responsibilities for ‘GMA,'” Mr. Banner said.

Although the Vargas-Woodruff strategy had been built around having one anchor in the studio and the other frequently reporting from the field, Mr. Banner said that while Ms. Sawyer and Mr. Gibson are sitting in, “We may be traveling, but there are no set trips in mind for the next week or so.

“What happens one week may not happen the next because of their responsibilities for ‘Good Morning America,'” he said.

Last week’s events found ABC News coping for the second time in less than a year with dreadful and delicate leading-man troubles, forcing Mr. Westin and his team to try to stay the course until they know they have to change their plans.

Last April it was the out-of-the-blue news that Peter Jennings, “World News Tonight” anchor of more than two decades, had a particularly virulent form of lung cancer that would take his life four months later.

It was more than three more months before ABC News would put Plan B into effect.

Three weeks after Mr. Woodruff and Ms. Vargas were installed as co-anchors of “World News,” Mr. Woodruff and Mr. Vogt, who were standing up in the back hatches of an Iraqi armored vehicle to get a better view at the time of the incident, became a huge headline as journalistic casualties of the Iraq war.

By the end of last week, Mr. Vogt was vastly improved. But Mr. Woodruff, despite signs of progress, was still sedated, which meant it was difficult if not impossible to make a prognosis, much less a prediction about whether or when he might be able to return to work.

Outsiders unanimously branded the decision to bring in Ms. Sawyer and Mr. Gibson as one that undermined Ms. Vargas. In these observers’ opinions, ABC News had opened a veritable Pandora’s box: It had loosed fresh insult to Mr. Gibson, who had seen the job for which many felt he was perfect go to Mr. Woodruff and Ms. Vargas, both of whom would have to be seasoned and sold to the public.

Their Pandora’s box scenario also posits a last grasp by Ms. Sawyer for a power perch she had publicly declared she did not covet late last year, but that now might look more attractive in light of “GMA’s” loss of momentum and the possibility that her stronger morning show rival Katie Couric might trade the couch on NBC’s “Today” for the anchor desk at “CBS Evening News.”

Mr. Banner said, “I’d argue with the entire premise. The fact of the matter is we’re missing one of our anchors. Elizabeth is the other anchor of this program. It is her broadcast. It is her and Bob’s broadcast. And we are lucky to have Charlie and Diane help and get us through this difficult time. Elizabeth is very appreciative that they’re helping out.

“That’s the story,” he said.