She’s Headed to Prime Time, and She’s Solo

sawyer and nichols 2 gett Shes Headed to Prime Time, and Shes SoloIt was Tuesday morning, the day after Labor Day, and Diane Sawyer was smiling brightly and wearing black. Toward the top of the hour, Chris Cuomo, one of her co-anchors on Good Morning America, looked at the camera and ran through the morning’s headlines. There was swine flu spreading rapidly through American schools, an alleged serial killer arrested in Milwaukee, great white sharks off the coast of Cape Cod, bombings in Afghanistan, cracks in San Francisco’s Bay Bridge and a journalist in Sudan convicted of wearing pants in public. 

The news mix was titillating, dire and demographically on point. You could practically feel the collective anxiety emanating from the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged female viewers from around the country as Mr. Cuomo brought the roundup to a lighthearted close. The island nation of Samoa, he explained, had decided for the first time in 40 years to switch the side of the road their citizens drive on. Imagine the chaos of that commute! There was a clip of traffic run amok. “It’s a complicated transition,” Mr. Cuomo explained.

Ms. Sawyer sat a few feet away and listened to Mr. Cuomo’s report on the challenges facing Samoan commuters with a facial expression more or less passing for acute interest.

Six days earlier, ABC News executives had confirmed a scoop on the Drudge Report that, come December, Ms. Sawyer’s longtime colleague Charles Gibson would be retiring from the evening news program, World News. Ms. Sawyer would be taking over as anchor of that half-hour, as managing editor of the newsroom and as the unofficial public face of the network.

Like the sudden reversal of traffic laws, the changing of evening news anchors has historically resulted in complicated transitions. But so far, one week after the announcement, head-on-head collisions have yet to materialize. Most of the rubbernecking has been equally benign. A report in the Daily Beast suggested that Mr. Gibson was livid about something or other regarding the transition. Subsequently, a report in Newsday suggested that Mr. Gibson was upset about the timing of the announcement, coming as it did before Labor Day, when admittedly nobody much felt like whipping themselves into the paroxysms of giddy analysis that typically accompany word on an evening newscast succession. ABC denied both reports.

Inside ABC News, the announcement was met with more shoulder shrugging than teeth gnashing. Several sources told The Observer that, if anything, they had expected Mr. Gibson to have retired sooner after last year’s election. Others were surprised that Mr. Gibson would give up such a cushy position for no apparent reason other than his stated desire to spend more time with his wife, who is likewise retired. Nobody seemed at all shocked that Ms. Sawyer was being given the job.

Instead, much of the water-cooler talk focused on speculation about what would happen next at Good Morning America. Would ABC find a replacement in time for the November sweeps? Or would they use the sweeps as a farewell tour for Ms. Sawyer?

Which is not to say that the newsroom was free of anxiety. Whereas Mr. Gibson is said to work well with whatever producers happen to surround him, Ms. Sawyer has a reputation for being particular. Will she overhaul the World News roster? The general sense, among The Observer’s sources, was that much of the inevitable drama of anchor succession still lies ahead. “They have four months to figure this out,” said one source. “But four months can go by awfully fast in television.”

 

OUTSIDE THE NETWORK, media critics have struggled to work up much of a frenzy over the appointment. “Why the 63-year-old Sawyer would want to enter this dying news genre confounds reason—unless she’s simply weary of rising in the early a.m. to appear on Good Morning America, which she’s co-hosted since 1999,” wrote Slate’s Jack Shafer.

Ms. Sawyer may be tired of the early-morning drudgery of her current job. And, to be sure, audiences for the broadcast evening newscasts continue to shrink and get older. But to say that the job of anchoring the evening news is not what it once was—that it’s a throne diminished—is to miss the point of the attraction for Ms. Sawyer.

Everything in modern media is diminished. So what else should one of the last remaining TV news superstars of the late 20th century aspire to do for her final act?

“Even though it’s fast declining, the evening newscasts collectively still get almost 25 million people a night,” said The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta. “This is a smart woman who suffered the indignity of morning news. You’re doing a lot of Michael Jackson stuff. Sometimes she did it too gleefully, which hurt her. Now it’s a chance for her to do what she’s been trying to do in the morning—that is, show off her serious side.