NEW YORK — In choosing the anchor team of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff to replace the late Peter Jennings at “World News Tonight,” ABC News President David Westin concluded the job was too big for one person in an age when news is available instantly.
ABC also said Monday that “World News Tonight” would be the first network evening newscast to broadcast live for three different time zones — Eastern, Mountain and Pacific. Its anchors will travel frequently to the site of major news and update stories during the day on the Internet and for cell-phone users.
“You need more than one anchor,” Westin said. “One person can’t do all of this.”
Left out of the mix was veteran ABC newsman Charles Gibson, co-host of “Good Morning America.” Gibson, Vargas and Woodruff have been the main substitutes since Jennings announced in April that he had lung cancer. Jennings died on Aug. 7.
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Vargas, 43, and Woodruff, 44, give ABC News the opportunity to establish an anchor team with the potential to match Jennings — sole anchor for nearly 22 years — in longevity. Gibson is 64. The new team could also attract younger viewers to a format that has one of the oldest audiences in television.
“This is the right team to take us forward,” Westin said. “My clear goal is to make sure we have the strategy for the future and not just the past.”
Their official start date will be Jan. 3.
Although declining in viewers and influence, the evening newscasts are still considered the flagships of the broadcast networks with their anchors the most visible faces. It’s the first time since the brief mid-1990s pairing of Dan Rather and Connie Chung on CBS that a network has used an anchor team.
‘I am so proud’
Vargas, a self-described Army brat who is married to singer-songwriter Marc Cohn, will keep her job as co-anchor of the ABC newsmagazine “20/20.” She will be the first chief network anchor with Hispanic heritage. Her father is from Puerto Rico and her mother is Irish.
“I am so proud,” she said. “I know what this means to Hispanics in this country ... to have people who look like you and talk like you in positions of importance.”
Woodruff, from outside of Detroit, is a father of four and lawyer who turned to journalism after working in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square uprising. His first evening news experience came on CBS — a seven-second evening news sound bite as an interview subject. He’s covered the Justice Department for ABC and was the weekend “World News Tonight” anchor.
“I am ecstatic at having been given this opportunity,” he said.
The selection enabled ABC to leave Gibson at “Good Morning America” and not disrupt a broadcast that has become more competitive with NBC’s “Today,” which this week marked 10 years on top of the ratings. The morning shows are the most lucrative and chief area of growth for broadcast networks.
“I think ABC decided to take one risk instead of two,” said Bob Zelnick, former ABC newsman and now dean of Boston University’s journalism school.
Westin said his anchor decision was made solely with “World News Tonight,” not other broadcasts, in mind. Although Gibson was interested in the evening job, he told Westin that “‘I have a great job now and I will be perfectly happy whichever way this goes,”’ the news chief said. “He’s been steadfast about that.”
Gibson did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
Westin wouldn’t discuss the factors that went into his decision, which he said was communicated last Thursday to the new anchors, or whether Gibson was ever considered part of the mix. “I looked hard at all of these issues and felt like this was the way to go,” he said.
“World News Tonight” has been second in the ratings to NBC’s “Nightly News” with Brian Williams, 47, who just completed his first year since replacing Tom Brokaw.
“Bob and Elizabeth are very familiar competitors,” Williams said. “I’m looking forward to many years of friendship while we chase each other around the globe.”
ABC kept its ratings strong while Jennings was sick and in the immediate aftermath of his death, but has recently fallen further behind NBC. Despite Jennings’ illness, Westin said he refused to consider the question of a successor until after his death and, even then, said he wanted to leave a proper time for mourning. He called Jennings’ widow Sunday to tell her of his decision.
(MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft)
CBS stil undecided
It leaves only CBS undecided on its direction for the anchor era following Jennings, Brokaw and Dan Rather. Rather has been replaced by Bob Schieffer since leaving in March, and CBS is wooing NBC’s Katie Couric as its permanent evening anchor.
Even though they will be a team, Vargas and Woodruff frequently won’t be in the same studio. Westin said ABC News intends to be more aggressive in sending an anchor to the site of major stories.
“When a big story breaks, one person will take the (anchor) seat and the other will head to the airport,” Woodruff said.
With its plans to remake “World News Tonight” for separate time zones, ABC is making an aggressive effort to seek West Coast viewers. ABC occasionally updates “World News Tonight” for later time zones when there are changes to a major story, but generally cities like Los Angeles see a broadcast that is three hours old.
Woodruff and Vargas will anchor separate broadcasts at 6:30, 8:30 and 9:30 in the Eastern time zone. ABC will also be able to tailor the newscasts, for example airing a story with particular West Coast interest that might not be on the eastern newscast, said Jon Banner, “World News Tonight” executive producer.
“Our audience on the West Coast has had to put up with decades of stale news,” he said, “and we intend to change that.”
Woodruff and Vargas will also anchor a daily Webcast with top stories and a preview of “World News Tonight” that will be offered to wireless phone users. They’ll contribute to “The Blue Sheet,” a daily blog produced by the evening news team.
ABC is part of entertainment and media company The Walt Disney Co. CBS is part of Viacom Inc., while NBC is owned by General Electric Co. Westin said Disney chief Robert Iger, a former ABC executive, and Anne Sweeney, head of ABC, both offered their ideas on the transition but that the decision was his.
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