As of Memorial Day, Charlie Gibson will finally, officially and for the foreseeable future be the sole anchor of World News Tonight.
On May 23, ABC News president David Westin announced that he was undoing everything he had done this past November when he appointed the youthful duo of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff as Peter Jennings’ successors. Those two, he said, will go quietly to other projects—Ms. Vargas to child-rearing and 20/20, Mr. Woodruff back to his slow convalescence. Diane Sawyer, meanwhile, will continue to brighten the dawn from her post at Good Morning America.
For those tallying at home, that’s two whopping demotions, one long-delayed promotion and, for the network’s biggest star, one permanently thwarted ambition.
Thus ABC settled its anchor quandary Tuesday after a tumultuous six months—and one week to the day after its evening newscast had dipped to third in the ratings.
Mr. Gibson prevailed, in large part, by hanging in. “I was the guy still there by the candy machine,” Mr. Gibson said, “and so I got the job.”
Mr. Westin maintained, against a considerable body of evidence, that the shuffle is agreeable to all involved. Ms. Vargas—who according to network sources had been struggling to keep her job in recent weeks—“has had a lot of ups and downs and turns around through the whole process,” Mr. Westin said. “She’s had a lot of responsibility and a lot of stress, and she’s done a superb job throughout. She’s been the consummate professional, but it’s taken a toll on her.”
Mr. Woodruff, still recovering from injuries sustained in Iraq in January, may yet return. “Any inference you have that I don’t expect him to come back as anchor is wrong,” Mr. Westin said.
And Ms. Sawyer, for the time being, will continue her quest to topple NBC’s Today—now without her archrival Katie Couric.
“Diane from the beginning has said Charlie is the right person to do World News Tonight,” Mr. Westin said.
What of the reports that she sought the position for herself?
“Diane does a lot of thinking out loud,” said Mr. Gibson, “and you never know exactly what’s very serious or what’s running things up a flagpole.”
He continued: “Because there’s been so much speculation in the press, we really sort of joked about it as much as anything. ‘If he decides to make a change, or if this evolves that there’s going to be a change at World News,’ I was saying, ‘you gotta go do it.’ And she was saying to me, ‘ You gotta go do it.’”
Ms. Sawyer, who hired a lawyer last week for reasons unknown, is so far saying nothing else, save for a comment to the network’s ostensibly harmonious press release, to which all the other principals also contributed.
Considering the contract rejiggering required to keep everyone pacified through this move, it may have been the most expensive press release in the history of television news.
Said Ms. Vargas, who days ago was still planning to take a lightning-quick maternity leave and then head straight back to her anchor chair: “I have loved every day I spent at World News Tonight and have endless respect for my colleagues there. This broadcast needs someone who can give 150 percent—day in and day out. I am not in a position to give that right now, and it wouldn’t be fair to do any less. In Charlie, this broadcast and news division has a wonderful and respected leader.”
Said Mr. Woodruff: “Elizabeth and I set out on a great adventure this year, and I’m proud of what we accomplished. Elizabeth had to shoulder an enormous job when I was injured, and she did it with grace. Charlie Gibson is a mentor and a friend. I look forward to contributing to his broadcast as soon as I’m able.”
The countdown to the announcement began half a year ago, when Mr. Westin passed over Mr. Gibson in selecting Peter Jennings’ replacements on World News Tonight. Over the winter, as Mr. Woodruff’s injury was followed by word of Ms. Vargas’ pregnancy, speculation grew that the network was preparing for a do-over. An announcement was widely expected in mid-March, but instead, things seemed to settle into stasis.
Then came May 16, known among some ABC staffers as Black Tuesday, when Nielsen released its final ratings on the previous week’s evening newscasts, showing that the ABC broadcast had fallen into third place, behind the CBS Evening News, for the first time in five years.
The same day, Cindy Adams—who had predicted Mr. Gibson’s selection in March—published a stinging column calling Mr. Westin indecisive, and at the ABC upfront presentation at Avery Fisher Hall, executives presented a fall schedule that had no permanent slot for Ms. Sawyer’s newsmagazine, Primetime.
Disney president Bob Iger and ABC president Anne Sweeney—who many at the network believe had a heavy hand in the latest decision—were in town from Burbank for the upfront. Mr. Westin said their involvement was restrained. “The decision was mine to make,” he said, and his discussions with Mr. Iger and Ms. Sweeney were conducted “overwhelmingly on the phone.”
The negotiations began in earnest five days ago, Mr. Gibson said, and the only option discussed was his taking over as solo anchor. Immediately, Mr. Gibson sought Ms. Sawyer’s blessing: “I went to her and said, ‘Are you O.K. with this?’ And she said, ‘You need to go do it.’ I expect she would have done the same if they’d come to her to do it. The fact that she said O.K. was enormously important to me.”
“As we negotiated this through,” Mr. Gibson said, “all the time during negotiations we were saying, ‘How is this going to affect Bob?’”
Another consideration was the fate of ABC’s morning show, now caught in a deepening slump. Moving Mr. Gibson leaves Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts alone on the couch at Good Morning America. The prevailing theory of morning-show programming is that the anchor team should reflect the average nuclear family: a mother, a father, a couple kids reading the headlines and talking about the weather. As of June 30—Mr. Gibson’s last day on the show—ABC will have two mommies, no weatherman and Mike Barz.
“We’re going from three wonderful anchors to two wonderful anchors,” Mr. Westin said. “Two is the tradition in morning television. At the same time, with the loss of Charlie, we’re going to be spending the summer taking a hard look at other people we might bring in in other roles.”
Barring unforeseen developments—never a safe thing to do when it comes to ABC—Mr. Gibson’s appointment solidifies the next generation of evening-news anchors. Come fall, he will go up against the pert novelty of Ms. Couric at the CBS Evening News and the youthful authority of Brian Williams at NBC’s Nightly News. Mr. Gibson’s broadcast may appeal to the audience now harnessed by CBS interim anchor Bob Schieffer—viewers who like to get their headlines from a stately older newsman.
“There is a tendency on your part to personify this thing as, you know, Katie v. Charlie v. Brian,” Mr. Gibson said. “It really isn’t. I know this news organization. I’ve been working for this company 40 years. I know the reporters. I know the editors. I’ve been in the bureaus all over the world. It’s not mano a mano a womano. It really is the news department. And what I end up doing is fronting it.”