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Anchor Roulette


The placeholder: Bob Schieffer.  

The news now happens 24 hours a day and on dozens of channels, and the networks realize they must now cover it with dashing and passionate personalities, glitzy and informative graphics, and rapid-fire imagery just to keep our attention. Handheld devices, iPods, and computer screens will deliver the news to you, no matter where you happen to be. “If ABC News could figure out a way to broadcast the news onto your moles, then we would be working right now to send our programming directly to your moles,” the senior vice-president of ABC News, Paul Slavin, said over lunch at Nougatine, the Jean Georges front-room restaurant that functions as something of a network-news commissary. (Richard Leibner, the powerful television agent, stopped by to say hello.)

But before the next meeting of the Mole Broadcasting Subcommittee, Slavin and his boss, David Westin, have a tricky assignment ahead of them. They must figure out how to pick an anchor to be the future face of ABC News, to be the network’s go-to person when the big story hits—and to do so without annoying anyone in their stable of stars, or losing their loyal audience. They want to keep those numbers from eroding, while not sacrificing the huge earning power of Good Morning America.

And for Westin, that comes down to an agonizing personal decision—whether to grant the wish of the genial 62-year-old GMA co-host Charles Gibson and make him the anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight or give the job to 44-year-old green-eyed dreamboat Bob Woodruff or gorgeous 43-year-old new mom Elizabeth Vargas—both experienced reporters and anchors themselves, if not bona fide television personalities. The decision has been complicated by issues of loyalty, friendship, economics, and Diane Sawyer.

Gibson represents the Jennings school: He remains a classic twentieth-century anchorman-reporter with experience and gravitas who believes in comforting a nation from behind a desk in moments of high stress. Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff stand—literally, when they do World News Tonight—for the network’s desire to make long-term changes, to go where the news is. They’re reasonably young, healthy, and ready to roll, if not rock.

In April, when 66-year-old ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings announced the lung-cancer diagnosis that permanently took him off World News Tonight, the network turned first to Gibson as anchor, with Woodruff and Vargas switching off. By September, the GMA co-host had tired of the grueling early-morning-to-night schedule—at one point he got pneumonia. Woodruff took over, and he and Vargas settled into a regular routine: She would anchor Monday through Wednesday, and Woodruff would assume the chair Thursday through Sunday. Vargas by this time had been anchoring for years, both on the weekends and as part of the new 20/20 anchor team; although she struck many observers as stiff and formal on-camera, ABC clearly saw serious potential.

In the weeks after Jennings’s death, the steady appearances of Woodruff and Vargas led executives at other networks to assume that they’d get the nod. By early November, Westin promised a decision in “weeks, not months.” But by then the weeks had already turned to months, and it was clear that Westin wasn’t going to hurry in making perhaps the most crucial decision of his career.

A reasonable argument could be made for giving the anchor job to Gibson. Of the three leading candidates, he’s by far the best known to audiences; unlike Woodruff and Vargas, Gibson has a built-in and substantial fan base from GMA. He’s been a loyal ABC foot soldier for most of his television career. He worked in Washington as a reporter before his first tour of duty as a GMA co-host began in 1987. He stayed in that job (partnered with Joan Lunden) until 1998. Gibson believed he’d been passed over for other opportunities—and the chance to stay at GMA—because Roone Arledge, then president of ABC News, didn’t favor him.

“Roone doesn’t like the cut of my jib,” Gibson would complain to colleagues. Westin replaced Arledge in 1997—and executed a famously botched remake of GMA with trivia-game answers Lisa McCree and Kevin Newman. In 1999, he persuaded Gibson and Sawyer to sign on for a three-month stint to save GMA.

The two remain on the job six years later, having earned more than $100 million in annual profits for the Walt Disney Company (the corporate owner of ABC) and big raises for themselves with their breezy, urban-oriented broadcast. Sawyer now earns an estimated $12 million for her ABC duties (she remains affiliated with PrimeTime, though she has contributed almost nothing for the Thursday-night newsmagazine show yet this season), and industry sources put Gibson’s compensation at around $8 million. GMA’s success in closing in on the Today show has given Gibson the stature to demand a reward for his loyalty.

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