ABC Pins Hopes on Steady Gibson

May 29, 2006  •  Post A Comment

ABC plans a promotional blitz to inaugurate Charlie Gibson as the new anchor of “World News Tonight” after announcing last week that the longtime morning-show host will become lead anchor of the newscast.

ABC News President David Westin has a lot riding on Mr. Gibson, who will take over the network’s news desk today. Mr. Gibson’s appointment ends 13 months of uncertainty for Mr. Westin, whose marquee news program has suffered instability since the late anchor Peter Jennings’ battle with cancer forced him off the show.

Anchoring “World News Tonight” will pit Mr. Gibson against Brian Williams on “NBC Nightly News” and Katie Couric on “CBS Evening News.” Mr. Westin is betting Mr. Gibson’s avuncular ethos, honed by 18 years on “Good Morning America,” will appeal to viewers and strengthen ABC in the evening news race.

Mr. Gibson will take over a newscast that three weeks ago was surpassed by CBS’s broadcast in total viewers for the first time in nearly five years. The other two evening news shows, including top-rated “NBC Nightly News,” have been losing viewers in the past year.

ABC already is considering how to promote Mr. Gibson’s ascent to the helm of “World News Tonight,” Mr. Westin said last week in an interview. Whatever form that push takes, Mr. Gibson will benefit from an aggressive marketing campaign, ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said.

Mr. Gibson’s new job puts him where he’s wanted to be since Mr. Jennings’ fatal illness created an opening at the news desk. He lobbied for the position, but Mr. Westin passed on him in favor of the duo of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas.

“I actually came out of those negotiations understanding what David was trying to do,” Mr. Gibson, 63, said in an interview last week, displaying his good-guy persona. “Since it impacted me personally, I had some disagreements with David.”

Mr. Westin’s plans were rocked in January when Mr. Woodruff was injured by a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq. That left the news division chief to again seek a strategy to keep his evening news show from losing ground. Mr. Gibson credits Mr. Westin’s willingness to take a risk on the dual-anchor format.

“I thought it was probably too early to do this, but he tried to create something brand-new in network evening newscasts, and who knows? It might have worked,” Mr. Gibson said. “He just got hit by a broadside for the second time. The circumstances have conspired to bring us to this point.”

Those circumstances put a news veteran at the desk whose appeal to viewers has been proved on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Mr. Westin may face less risk with Mr. Gibson on “World News Tonight” than with the Woodruff-Vargas team.

“I never thought Elizabeth was anchor quality,” said Boston University Professor Bob Zelnick, a former ABC news correspondent, who said Mr. Woodruff could have carried the team had he not gotten injured. “All that being said, I applaud what ABC has done. This is a good thing.”

Mr. Westin pins some of the blame for the instability at his evening news show on the bomb that injured Mr. Woodruff.

“The villain in all of this is some vicious insurgents,” Mr. Westin said. “They took away half of my co-anchor team.”

Mr. Gibson’s low-key personality is as much a part of his character off the set as on. Asked whether he has been given the managing editor title his counterparts have or the senior editor title Mr. Jennings had, Mr. Gibson was perplexed for a moment.

“It’s not something that was ever raised in discussions and God knows everything else was discussed,” Mr. Gibson said. “I never raised it. … If you want to give me a title and call me Chief Poobah, that’s fine. I don’t care.”

ABC hasn’t made specific plans for changing “World News Tonight” to fit Mr. Gibson’s style, executive producer Jon Banner said in an interview.

Some think Mr. Williams may lose viewers as audiences check out the familiar Mr. Gibson. Likewise, some believe Ms. Couric, for whom CBS paid some $75 million, may lose some of the viewers who buoyed “Evening News” ratings under the interim anchorship of Bob Schieffer.

“I think Katie is going to have her hands full competing with Charlie and Brian,” Mr. Zelnick said. “I would be surprised if she emerged as first.”