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Anchor Roulette

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The young old guys: Bob Woodruff and Brian Williams.  

But not being the demanding type, Gibson has returned to his full-time GMA duties and let Woodruff and Vargas have World News Tonight to themselves. Still, he’s let it be known to his bosses that he wants the job, according to ABC sources. And Westin—who owes his longevity at ABC largely to the success of the Sawyer-Gibson pairing in the morning—has to weigh his loyalty to Gibson against the cost of his departure from GMA.

And, of course, Westin knows his decision will have a huge impact on his most important relationship at ABC News—the intense and personal one he has with the news division’s most powerful and opinionated star, Diane Sawyer. As eager as Westin might be to mint a new news-division celebrity, he’s reluctant to upset the biggest one he’s got. She wants nothing more than to overtake Today in the ratings, and the possible loss of her co-host to World News Tonight might hurt her chances.

The conflict represents one more thorny dimension to the complex relationship between Sawyer and Gibson, whose professional marriage has many of the problems of a real one; indeed, one might argue that Gibson should have walked out on his TV wife years ago. Sawyer gets things done her way at GMA; for years, Gibson suffered as Sawyer’s alliance with then–executive producer Shelley Ross put him in a subservient position, according to ABC sources. Things got better for Gibson with the arrival of former NBC producer Ben Sherwood—a best-selling novelist who led the most recent (and largely successful) charge up the Today show mountain—but it remains an uneasy romance.

The subject of Sawyer’s own possible anchor ambitions bubbled to the surface on the morning of October 24, when readers of Broadcasting & Cable saw this headline: SAWYER? GIBSON? WESTIN’S DILEMMA HEATS UP. The article went on to report that ABC insiders were “buzzing over Diane Sawyer’s apparent interest in the blue-chip slot.” It contended that Sawyer’s desire had been sparked by Katie Couric’s talks with CBS chair Les Moonves about the anchor job and that “observers began detecting that [Sawyer] had started campaigning for the job.” The article included an adamant denial from ABC News communications vice-president Jeffrey Schneider, who said flatly that Sawyer was “not a candidate” to succeed Jennings.

David Westin can’t figure out how to keep everyone happy—including himself. The only consolation is that CBS News has it even worse.

The Michael’s lunch crowd immediately went to work trying to decipher Sawyer’s intentions. Her colleagues theorized that she leaked the item herself to remind ABC management of its constant need to please her, despite no real desire for the job. Associates suggested that Sawyer, as the network’s most powerful news star, wanted her name in the mix. “Does she know what she wants? Not a clue,” one old confidant of Sawyer’s explained. “Does she need to be wanted? By everyone, constantly.” Others argued that Sawyer was embarrassed by the story, which forced ABC to formally pull her name out of contention.

Officially, all ABC News will now say is that Sawyer remains a loyal and important part of the news team and that she was never a candidate for anchor. “From the first moment Peter Jennings became sick, Diane offered to do whatever she could to help,” says Westin (his only comment for this article). “But she regards her responsibility to GMA as the most important part of her job.”

What’s clear is that Westin can’t figure out how to keep everyone happy—including himself. The only consolation is that CBS News has it even worse.

In the eight months since Dan Rather left the CBS Evening News, the news division has made no discernible progress toward picking a permanent replacement. Moonves, who’s tried unsuccessfully to woo Katie Couric in the past, will likely make a huge play for the Today show superstar when her contract expires in May 2006. She currently earns $13 million a year (a reflection of the $250 million the Today show contributes to the bottom line of General Electric, NBC’s corporate parent), and a CBS deal would have to involve a hefty increase. But Couric’s preference may be to try syndication; it’s an easier lifestyle, and a format well suited to her talents. Oprah Winfrey has committed herself to keeping her hugely profitable daytime talk show on television only through 2011. Winfrey’s estimated net worth of more than $1 billion gives Couric something to mull over on her way to work in the gloomy midtown darkness.

Katie Couric is CBS’s best shot, its only shot, and its long shot all rolled into one; she’s endured slags from just about every quarter (including this magazine) and remained No. 1. After years of not preparing for the departure of Dan Rather, CBS found itself with no viable options when that day got moved up in the wake of the 60 Minutes documents scandal of September 2004. Moonves had never warmed to early front-runners Scott Pelley and John Roberts, and who else was there? Mika Brzezinski? Lara Logan? Byron Pitts? It seemed a paltry assortment for a news division that once boasted the best lineup of news stars on television—“Like being admitted to the mother church,” is how Mike Wallace recently described joining the team that once included Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Charles Kuralt. The last A-list stars to emerge from the CBS News stable were Diane Sawyer and Meredith Vieira, both now at ABC. By the way, either of them would also do nicely for CBS if Couric said no; however, both of them would likely say no, too.


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