ABC News Finds Low-Key Anchor Transition Works Much Better

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Sawyer with her predecessor, Charles Gibson. Photo: Getty Images

Last week, NBC reversed one of the most disastrous transitions in broadcast history. After years of prepping late-night audiences for Conan O'Brien's takeover of the Tonight Show at 11:35, and moving Jay Leno to an experimental new spot at 10 p.m., the network spent millions of dollars and subjected itself to mass ridicule in order to put Leno back in his old spot. Just across the island of Manhattan, another major network transition has been underway for the past month. Compared to the public-relations disaster at NBC, ABC's shift in its morning and evening news programs has been positively under the radar — and much more successful.

On December 21, Diane Sawyer began helming World News Tonight, becoming the first woman to do so permanently. On December 14, George Stephanopoulos took over her seat at Good Morning America, ousting news anchor Chris Cuomo in the process. The change, of course, was covered in the media. But despite its suddenness (Charlie Gibson only announced his retirement in September), the switch transpired relatively quietly, and seamlessly.

This was a carefully planned strategy. "Our primary thought was that there should be continuity between Charlie and Diane, to keep our audience comfortable. We did not promise in any way that we are going to be changing evening news," explained ABC News senior vice-president Jeffrey Schneider, an architect of their transition strategy. "We were keenly aware of the expectations game and had seen what outsized expectations can lead to. We simply wanted to get on the air in a no nonsense way."

The "expectations game," of course, is in part a reference to Katie Couric's much-hyped transition from beloved Today show host to anchor of the staid CBS Evening News in 2006. In that case, network bigs promised to radically overhaul the show's format, and Katie's popularity made the transition highly charged. "We didn't make the conscious decision to hype it," said Couric's first Evening News executive producer, Rome Hartman, last week. "We could have launched the Katie Couric CBS Evening News in an underground bunker in Siberia, and we couldn't have done much about the white hot publicity that was attached to it." For her first broadcast on September 5, 2006, Couric earned 13 million viewers. In a few months, the show was back firmly in third place, with numbers even lower than they were before she arrived.

ABC desperately hoped to avoid this fate, and studiously under-hyped the transition. They'd also been burned by their own last tumultuous transition, first from the late Peter Jennings to Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas in late 2005, then to just Vargas after Woodruff was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq in early 2006, and finally to Charles Gibson, who publicly outplayed a pregnant Vargas and a waffling Sawyer herself for the solo anchor role. Though Diane looks set to focus more on international reporting than Gibson did (she's been to Afghanistan and Haiti already in less than a month, and interviewed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), producers are consciously not trying to reinvent the wheel. Sawyer didn't do any interviews before her shift — she merely picked up the Monday after Gibson dropped off. Likewise, Stephanopoulos (whose transition from Sunday's This Week was confirmed mere days before he started at GMA) just slipped into his new show.

The strategy had two results: There was no initial big bump after either debut — Stephanopoulos's numbers even dipped at first — but a month later, ratings for both shows have been strong. Good Morning America is above the season average to date. World News Tonight audiences have grown each week since Sawyer's debut, and in the first non-holiday week of the year, she drew an average of 9.4 million viewers, which is the best the program has done in nearly two years. In other words: so far, so good.

But what does this mean for the evening-news format in general? The audience "tends to skew much older demographically," explains Syracuse professor and television expert Bob Thompson. "The very thing that makes them an audience that's responsive to the stability of cast and programs is the thing that makes them potentially upset at major change." Ratings for the genre in general, even though they are still in the high millions, are shrinking every year. "Nobody's been able to figure out how to change that overall trend," laments Hartman, who now helms BBC America's own hour long nighttime news broadcast. "Fewer people watch the network evening news programs than did last year, and on and on it goes." Thus, the networks are, in a way, trapped: Their old, lucrative formats are slowly dying, but changes only seem to speed up the process.

Although ABC's strategy of managing this decline is not the most exciting answer to the problem, it might be the best one. "Network news is still working," argues NBC News contributor and media strategist Dan Abrams. "It may not be not as popular or profitable as it once was, but it still makes millions for each network and provides a cache." Indeed, given the ever-expanding supply of news 24 hours a day, it makes more sense to look at evening-news audiences in isolation, explains Thompson. "We've got a limited, finite audience of people who are going to watch the evening news," he says. Network strategists are looking at the situation and thinking, Our job is not so much to grow that audience to new people, which may be an impossibility, our job is to get the biggest chunk of that finite group for ourselves. Hype or no hype, it's no surprise that the extremely experienced Diane Sawyer, who is more energetic and natural-feeling than her former morning colleague, Charles Gibson, is increasing ABC's share of that chunk.

Related: How Good Morning America co-Host Charles Gibson Seized the ABC Evening-News Anchor Spot