Shaken, ABC News Tries To Recover Despite Assaults

In December, ABC settled at last on a long-term plan for World News Tonight. News-division president David Westin announced that the empty desk left by the death of Peter Jennings would be filled not by a new old-fashioned anchor, but by a pair of youthful, globetrotting talents, Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas.

Now, two months later, Mr. Westin’s vision for the future is on indefinite hold. Mr. Woodruff, badly wounded on assignment in Iraq, is out, with no timetable for his return. And Ms. Vargas announced last week that she is pregnant, which would largely rule out roving assignments through the summer.

The network is sticking with its forward-looking message: “We are continuing down the road of the plan that we had,” said World News Tonight executive producer Jon Banner.

But it’s hard to have a two-roving-anchor format without two roving anchors.

And so, a mere 72 days after Mr. Woodruff and Ms. Vargas were to have inaugurated two decades of stability and vitality at the network, ABC’s news programs are leaning again on the old-line talent—the reliable broadcasters of yesteryear. Good Morning America anchors Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson, 60 and 62, respectively, are gamely filling in for Mr. Woodruff on World News Tonight. Picking up their slack on the morning show will be Barbara Walters, 74.

“It is classic non-decision decision-making,” said an executive from another network, who sympathized with the challenges—both business and personal—that Mr. Westin faces in managing this situation. “The logical permanent solution is to go back to Charlie [Gibson],” the executive continued, “but no, not really, that’s not right …. The logical solution is to give it to Vargas solo …. Well, I guess there is no logical solution.”

“The fact of the matter is, we still have all these responsibilities to our broadcast,” said Mr. Banner. “We still have to do the West Coast feed. We still have to do the 3 o’clock Webcast. And we still want the flexibility to travel one of our anchors. There’s still enough work for two people. Just because Bob got hurt, that doesn’t mean the responsibility stops.”

On Wednesday, Feb. 15, Ms. Walters is scheduled to guest-host GMA—a familiar time slot for the veteran journalist, who anchored the Today show in the 1960’s—and Ms. Sawyer will make her debut opposite Ms. Vargas on World News Tonight. This will be the first time that two women co-anchor an evening newscast, but it’s not the way that ABC News hoped to make history.

In addition to coping with the shock of the injuries to Mr. Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, news executives are contending with a recent round of budget cuts, brought on in part by a failure of many shows to meet ratings targets, according to multiple network sources.

In a series of budget meetings over the past several weeks, executives and senior producers for Good Morning America and Nightline, in particular, have been asked to make significant cutbacks, the sources said.

“We’re always reviewing the budget, because we always face unexpected news events,” said an ABC spokesperson. “Resources get shifted around to cover those and allow for increased investment in different areas.”

And though Nightline has managed to hold onto its Ted Koppel–era ratings, the show’s staff is continuing its steady post-Koppel exodus, with one Washington-based producer leaving every few weeks or months. They are headed to Al Jazeera International—where television producers can do serious international news for a salary commensurate with broadcast news—or to National Public Radio, where television producers can do serious international news for a whole lot less.

Former Nightline correspondent Dave Marash is now the Washington anchor of Al Jazeera International, and several more staffers—most recently, producer Joanne Levine—have joined him there. Mr. Koppel and correspondent Michel Martin have both made their way to NPR, and plenty of others at ABC still hope to make the switch, according to multiple sources at the network.

“To people, it may seem like I went over there and shopped,” said Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior vice president for programming. But Mr. Kernis added that he didn’t deliberately raid ABC.

Still, at a full-staff meeting last week, according to one person in attendance, Mr. Kernis announced that he had selected William Marimow to be the station’s vice president of news after a long interview process—during which, Mr. Kernis said, he “pretty much met everyone who works at Nightline.”

(“I did say that,” Mr. Kernis said, “but that’s because I was talking to a room full of 200 serious NPR journalists, with another 100 people listening in via satellite or telephone, and I really wanted a laugh.”)

Morale elsewhere at ABC, even at World News, remains steady, Mr. Banner said. So do the ratings, which move glacially (if not slower) for evening-news broadcasts.

“I’m not expecting anything to drastically change,” he said. “There’s a lot of instability in the evening-news day part anyway. Brian [Williams, anchor of NBC’s Nightly News] has just started to solidify and come into his own. [Bob] Schieffer is or is not a short-timer at CBS. We have a plan. We believe that plan will work, and we’re going to stick to it.”

Alexis Glick, the all-American NBC correspondent who once seemed positioned to inherit Katie Couric’s anchor chair, has been moved off the Today show and thereby out of contention for its throne, according to three sources at the network.

While her colleagues schlepped around Turin to attend maximum-security parties at NBC’s lavish compound and fawn over the scenery, Ms. Glick cleared off her desk last week and shuffled out the door of 30 Rock.

Speculation favored her re-emergence at CNBC, where she began her television career as a trading correspondent.

“This is another case where they build up somebody in the press, make them believe they’re the next big thing, and then cut them off at the knees,” said one NBC source.

Before becoming a television correspondent, Ms. Glick worked in finance. A graduate of Columbia University, she began her career as an analyst for Goldman Sachs and worked her way up to head of New York Stock Exchange floor operations for Morgan Stanley, which, according to her NBC bio, made her the “first woman to manage a Floor Operation for a bulge bracket firm.”

Apparently, success in dawn-time television requires something more than brains and capitalist spunk.

The NBC sources said that another Today show benchwarmer, Natalie Morales, is becoming a full-time correspondent for the show.

A frequent contributor to the morning show’s third hour, Ms. Morales may be the next likely successor to Ms. Couric or headline-reader Ann Curry, the sources said.

Ms. Glick couldn’t be reached for comment. Ms. Morales is in Turin, where Ms. Couric, who was edged out of hosting the opening ceremonies by Brian Williams, has found at least one opportunity to throw her a loving elbow.

On Feb. 9, Ms. Morales was reporting from the tiny resort village of Sestriere, the site of all the Olympic skiing events. After a thorough piece detailing the quality of the competition and the depth of the powder, Ms. Morales kicked it back to Ms. Couric and co-host Matt Lauer.

“Looks beautiful up there,” said Ms. Couric.

“Yeah, it’s pretty,” said Mr. Lauer.

“The mountains, too,” said Ms. Couric.

“Ha ha,” said Mr. Lauer.

“That was a compliment to Natalie,” said Ms. Couric.

And, for Ms. Morales, a little glimpse of what’s to come.