Dave Davis has a lot to get his arms around as the newly named executive VP of ABC News.
All of the division’s shows—as well as all related functions, from special events coverage to advertising and promotion and talent recruitment and development—will report to him.
Newsgathering will report to ABC News President David Westin.
Mr. Westin last week announced the hire of Mr. Davis, which was completed after eight months of dialogue, as part of a major realignment of a number of ABC News fiefdoms whose previous executives were reassigned, largely to more narrowly defined roles.
ABC News is on the uptick in several key areas. “World News With Charles Gibson” won the news demo race for the season for the first time in 11 years and regularly finishes first in total viewers, pushing “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” into second place. Over the last year, “Good Morning America” has cut by 55 percent the total-viewer gap between it and NBC’s top-ranked “Today.” “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” has established itself as a solid No. 2 in the Sunday morning newsmaker show competition behind NBC’s “Meet the Press With Tim Russert.”
The challenges facing Mr. Davis, who conducted his first morning news meeting last Wednesday, range from taking these shows to the next level—and not just by dint of erosion at NBC’s “Nightly News” and “Today” show—to convincing insiders who don’t know him that his local-only news background will not be a handicap in his efforts.
It also quickly became clear last week that Mr. Davis will have to fend off the speculation, and in some corners presumption, that it is merely a matter of time until he replaces Mr. Westin. The elegant lawyer-turned-network executive, currently the longest-sitting network news executive, has weathered lows not all of his own making and highs that might have come sooner were he a less deliberative and more instinctive decision-maker.
Network sources and observers say Mr. Westin was long overdue in defining a line of succession, despite pressure from Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group.
Asked the succession question during a phone conversation after the announcement, Mr. Westin said that any executive who cares about his organization wants to make plans that assure it will be left in good hands. That said, Mr. Westin declared: “The first and foremost reason I hired Dave Davis is I want to work with him, not leave him.”
An ABC News insider said, “David Westin has many more things he wants to accomplish here and many more years in which to do that. Speculation otherwise is utter nonsense. And Dave Davis would be the first to tell you that.”
Those who have followed Mr. Davis’ career, from overnight photographer at ABC-owned KTRK-TV in Houston to the highly regarded president and general manager who put flagship ABC-owned station WABC-TV on top in New York, believe he has acquired the compleat TV executive’s skill set: decisiveness, teamsmanship, marketing and promotional smarts, the ability to find new faces to complement veterans and a straight shooter’s way with people and (not necessarily the same thing) talent. He is, for example, the boss who in 2006 let WABC star weatherman Sam Champion go to “GMA,” where he has blossomed into a strong utility player.
Hearst-Argyle News Senior VP Fred Young does not pretend to know any inner workings of last week’s ABC moves, but he knows Mr. Davis and his accomplishments going back to the days when both were Pennsylvania station executives, Mr. Young at Hearst-Argyle’s WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh and Mr. Davis at ABC-owned WPVI-TV in Philadelphia.
“He was an excellent news guy who became a really, really good station manager. He brings a knowledge of how to build a news organization and transition generationally and understands what the viewers are looking for,” Mr. Young said.
The Hearst-Argyle exec also thinks ABC News will benefit from Mr. Davis’ years in local news and management.
“I couldn’t be happier that ABC has put a station guy in a decision-making capacity in their news division,” he said. “He brings to them an awareness of the network news division’s distribution system. We [local TV affiliates] are their distribution system. … He understands the viewers’ interest in breaking news and credibility and the relationship between the station and the network news division—all of which ABC has been working to build—but station people historically have wondered sometimes if network people really cared about local news departments. Dave Davis will carry that message to them.”
Most ABC News staffers were stunned at the moves when they were announced to the staff and the press. Mr. Westin said that there are still three or four areas to be addressed.
Also announced last week:
- Paul Slavin, whose primary assignment has been oversight of newsgathering, takes the new position of senior VP for digital, reporting to Mr. Westin with a dotted line to Albert Cheng, exec VP of digital media for the Disney/ABC Television Group.
- Phyllis McGrady, who has overseen “Good Morning America” and the prime-time magazines and series, is in the new position of senior VP for creative development, also reporting to Mr. Westin.
- Paul Mason, who has overseen “Nightline,” “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” and overnight and morning news programming and inserts, is now senior VP for politics, reporting to Mr. Davis.
- Thirty-year ABC News veteran Bob Murphy is administrative VP.