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Is this man ready for Prime Time?

This month, David Westin finally took the helm at ABC News, inheriting a division reeling from colliding egos and sagging ratings. But can a Jimmy Stewartish lawyer with no news experience restore the House that Roone Built?

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The invisible man has just been handed one of the most visible jobs in broadcast news.

David Westin may be among the canniest office politicians in the long, intrigue-filled history of ABC News. Or else he's just the luckiest figure to hit television since J. Fred Muggs. In March 1997, when the earnest 45-year-old lawyer was anointed heir apparent of ABC News, nobody thought he'd survive the year. Within days, Westin's love life exploded into tabloid headlines, ABC correspondents privately attacked his lack of news experience, and cynics predicted that ABC president Roone Arledge -- who had helped oust two previous potential successors -- was sharpening his knives again.

he invisible man has just been handed one of the most visible jobs in broadcast news.

David Westin may be among the canniest office politicians in the long, intrigue-filled history of ABC News. Or else he's just the luckiest figure to hit television since J. Fred Muggs. In March 1997, when the earnest 45-year-old lawyer was anointed heir apparent of ABC News, nobody thought he'd survive the year. Within days, Westin's love life exploded into tabloid headlines, ABC correspondents privately attacked his lack of news experience, and cynics predicted that ABC president Roone Arledge -- who had helped oust two previous potential successors -- was sharpening his knives again.

Westin wearily admits that his lack of experience has been an issue. But he argues that what is needed from a news president is overall direction, not hands-on experience. So what if he's never covered a breaking news story? "I don't have to know how to do it," he says, "I have to have a sense of what's working and what's not."

His big-picture approach to the news is in marked contrast to the voluble charisma of Roone Arledge, a legend who pushed ABC from third place to first in the eighties by sheer force of personality. During his tenure, Arledge cultivated a generation of celebrity anchors, turned the news division from a joke into a powerhouse, and helped invent Nightline, World News Tonight, This Week With David Brinkley, 20/20, and PrimeTime Live.

The differences in the two men's approaches were starkly evident at the lavish press breakfast ABC threw in May at Tavern on the Green in honor of Charles Gibson, the longtime Good Morning America anchor now joining 20/20. Asked to say a few words, Westin played the starstruck role, describing how thrilled he was when he first met Gibson. The year was 1991 and Westin had just left the well-connected Washington law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering to join ABC as general counsel. "I talked my way onto the set," said Westin, "and I think Charlie said hello -- and then he promptly turned his back and worked the show. It devastated me, but I was impressed at the way he focused."

Following Westin's meekly self-deprecating anecdote, Arledge seized the microphone and delivered a rousing exhortation to Good Morning America's staff. "We are all disappointed that we're not No. 1, that NBC is on a roll. You guys do a better program," thundered Arledge, who then went on to blame the news division's ratings slump on the network's disastrous prime-time entertainment schedule this season, the worst performance of any major network in history. "The network is going through a difficult time, and it's rubbed off on you, and other shows."

Arledge has a point. much of the turmoil at abc news stems from the dismal performance of its parent network, a problem that no news president can control. Viewers addicted to NBC's hugely popular ER and Friends -- barraged by endless promos for NBC's news shows -- have proved willing to switch their news loyalties.

Things may be looking up, however, just in time for Westin's watch. The network's new fall entertainment schedule, unveiled in May, has won high marks from ad buyers. "I think ABC hit rock bottom a while ago and now they're on the rebound," says Paul Schulman. "If ABC's prime-time schedule improves, the evening news ratings will improve as well."

That will certainly be good news for Peter Jennings, who worries that the news division is going to be hit with budget cuts to pay for the mistakes of the entertainment programmers. "The price they paid for Monday Night Football a whopping $9.2 billion -- my first question was, how much are they going to take out of our hide?" Jennings says. The anchor admits that he's nervous about Disney's commitment to news programming. "I've been told there are some people in the corporation who aren't as enthusiastic about the value of a news organization," he says, quickly adding, "I don't think Michael Eisner believes that."

When told that many blame the woes of the news division solely on entertainment-side excesses, Robert A. Iger, who as president of ABC Incorporated presides over both news and entertainment, responds pointedly, noting that in the not-too-recent past, "Peter Jennings was No. 1 when prime time wasn't."

But Iger softens visibly when the conversation turns to David Westin, whom he personally chose to head up ABC News. Westin spent almost three years as ABC's in-house counsel (his responsibilities included dealing with the Food Lion suit against PrimeTime Live for using hidden cameras), and then held two executive stints that were so brief -- a year as head of ABC's in-house TV production, two years as president of the ABC Television Network group -- that he didn't have time to build a track record.

Asked to cite Westin's accomplishments, Iger chooses instead to discuss his leadership potential. "David is a quick study because he's so smart. He cares a lot about news. And there was another quality that was very important to me -- he had respect for Roone Arledge," Iger adds. "He works hard at not being arrogant. If he doesn't know anything, he doesn't profess to know it."


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