On Oct. 12, Good Morning America aired the first part of Diane Sawyer’s exclusive interview with a twitching, sweaty, contrite Mel Gibson—by far the biggest of this fall’s big gets—beginning at 7:30 a.m. The next day, the news was devastating: Early ratings reports had the Today show beating Good Morning America by 1.5 million viewers, more than double the average spread between shows.
“We killed them,” said an NBC exec on the blog TV Newser.
It looked like one more disappointment for ABC’s queen bee. Except—aha!—that crushing defeat was actually the product of a little clever ratings jujitsu that went unnoticed by almost everyone in TV news.
That day, a week before NBC announced it was laying off 700 employees, the network had pulled all its national advertising beginning at 7:26 a.m., sacrificing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Nielsen Media Research, the company that measures ratings, only records data for programs that air national advertising. As a result, there is only ratings information from the beginning of the Today show, and none at all during the very time period when, a few channels away, Ms. Sawyer was mercilessly grilling the thirsty Aussie actor.
“We did not lose any money,” said Jim Bell, executive producer of the Today show.
“It’s a zero-sum game,” said an ABC executive. “You lose revenue or you lose editorial time down the road. Either way, you’re playing fast and loose.” NBC also uses the tactic against other programming.
It was one more bizarre episode in what has been a trying—and improbably triumphant—six months for Diane Sawyer.
After a protracted period of wavering, rumor and anticipation, she missed out on the full-scale game of musical anchor-chairs that happened this summer. Charlie Gibson went to World News Tonight, Katie Couric went to the CBS Evening News, Meredith Vieira went to Today—and Ms. Sawyer, the golden sphinx of ABC, stayed put.
And yet there she is! The old Diane Sawyer, after all that, is having an epic autumn for the news division. The big jobs—the Diane Sawyer–sized jobs—have passed by, but the big stories are there. And Ms. Sawyer has been getting them.
Beginning Oct. 17, she spent a productive week kicking around North Korea, filing dispatches for the morning and evening news shows, evaluating the nuclear threat, interrogating a general and an ambassador, and—as only Ms. Sawyer could—blogging. She filed Web dispatches from the bedroom of a young Korean figure skater and a nearby beauty parlor in which she noted the “smell of a permanent wave.”
She even got to show off her elevated standards, turning down the offer of an interview with JonBenét Ramsey non-killer John Mark Karr.
Then there was her troubled-actor twofer: Before Mr. Gibson, on Oct. 2 and 9, ABC aired the first and second halves of Ms. Sawyer’s exclusive interview with Robin Williams about his latest cartwheel off the wagon.
Ms. Sawyer took her post at Good Morning America in 1999, when she agreed to take a three-month stint as guest host and, like royalty in exile, never departed.
Ms. Sawyer’s next move may come on her own timetable. Back in May, when she removed herself—not entirely willingly—from the running for World News Tonight, ABC News president David Westin promised to work out an arrangement to her liking by January 2007, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions. Since then, Ms. Sawyer has been more inscrutable than ever. Even her closest confidantes—even the leaky ones—claim to have no idea what’s on her mind.
“Diane is keeping her cards extremely close to the vest,” said one. “None of us has any idea what she plans to do.”
Ms. Sawyer’s lawyer, Alan Grubman, declined to comment about her plans, as did a spokesman for ABC News.
As of now, not all in the upper ranks of the news division expect that their star will continue with Good Morning America after spring, when two network sources said her obligations to the show expire. But Ms. Sawyer’s contract with the network—renegotiated in 2005—isn’t up for at least another two years, said two different sources who are familiar with the details.
If not GMA, what?
Several options, each unsatisfying in its own way, are kicking around the halls at 66th and Columbus:
Ms. Sawyer could probably have Nightline if she wants, even though it’s the one ABC News show with an audience (4.7 million, on average) that is actually growing. According to three sources in a reasonably good position to know—although when it comes to Ms. Sawyer, no one ever really knows—Mr. Westin offered her Nightline at least once before, when it became clear Mr. Gibson would get World News. Ms. Sawyer, the sources said, declined.
A second option is to make Ms. Sawyer a correspondent at large, filling in occasionally on Good Morning America and World News with Charles Gibson and otherwise devoting her energies to landing big interviews, conducting prime-time specials and making appearances with husband Mike Nichols at glamorous events around town. Her hefty salary—Ms. Sawyer is, according to one network source, making Katie-bank—might make this arrangement financially inexpedient for the network.
Lastly, there would be the Barbara Walters path, going unquietly into nonretirement. “Not Diane,” said one of her associates.
One thing in all of this is clear: ABC needs Ms. Sawyer, 61, to stay—if only because the network has no other stars with the presence and seniority to replace Charlie Gibson, 63, if for some reason he has to leave World News. The lessons of the past year have been many and rough for ABC News. Among them: When you have an aging star, you need a contingency plan.
“From Mel Gibson to North Korea, you know they’re just laying at her feet, hoping against hope that that’ll be the thing that gets her to stay at GMA,” said an executive at another broadcast network.
And if she doesn’t ….
First in line for the morning desk is Campbell Brown, the snappy brunette news junkie that NBC can no longer afford. Ms. Brown, who didn’t inherit Ms. Couric’s chair at the Today show, possesses both the news chops and a willingness to talk about her home life that make her an ideal candidate. ABC’s morning team has few members willing or able to talk about their spouses and children. Ms. Brown’s recent marriage to right-wing commentator Dan Senor would be a gift from the morning-show gods. Her contract is up next summer. ABC is in discussions.
Also liminally in the running are GMA Weekend Edition anchor Kate Snow, whose contract is also up soon, and former World News Tonight co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, who—having been demoted and then having that demotion blamed on her pregnancy—would probably have a thing or two to tell the housewives of Middle America.
Yet those housewives are also one of Ms. Vargas’ main impediments: Good Morning America’s audience is 70 percent female, and among female viewers, Ms. Vargas is said internally to have “coldness issues.” As one network executive put it: “She doesn’t exactly exude warmth.”
What she does exude is competence. When she came to ABC a decade ago, Ms. Vargas was originally thought of as a possible successor to Joan Lunden on GMA. Only at the time, she tested poorly with morning audiences. But now, two pregnancies later, Ms. Vargas might be better suited for the bubbly dawn-time chitchat.
Whether there is an opening for her depends on the whims of Ms. Sawyer, a television personality whom one network executive called “a 61-year-old woman in search of a legacy.”
That executive is part of a school of Sawyer scholars who fantasize about a heroic surge for the anchor (there are plenty such people; most of them retired from TV news in the 1980’s). The Sawyerites sketch out versions of this scenario: Ms. Sawyer remains at the network past the end of her contract. Mr. Gibson does his work on World News and retires honorably sometime after the 2008 election. ABC, still as ever without a bench of possible replacements, turns once more to its queen. Ms. Sawyer alights, takes her throne and lives to trounce Katie Couric once and for all. It is all the more appealing because the final battle would occur during the serious nighttime hours, on traditionally male turf.
Presented with this version of events, an influential television source said: “So you’re just going to add to the speculative folklore of the travails of Ms. Sawyer? Why don’t you just ask her what she wants?”
Ms. Sawyer telephoned the afternoon of Oct. 30 and very politely declined an interview request.
Follow Rebecca Dana via RSS.