Is this man ready for Prime Time?

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.”

Iger got his start working for Arledge, and he remains loyal and protective toward his mentor. But this past year’s awkward power-sharing arrangement between Westin and Arledge – a long good-bye that’s dragged on as long as the much-hyped countdown to the final Seinfeld episode – has created tremendous day-to-day anxiety at ABC News. Even Iger admits he had to do some hand-holding in recent months as Westin pressed him repeatedly for a timetable, saying, “He’s had the ‘Patience, my son’ speech from me a few times.”

“It’s been hard on Roone and hard on David,” says Ted Koppel. “In a transition, no one wants to offend the other person. To hand over the reins, no matter how friendly a process it is, has got to be difficult.”

Not that Arledge appears to be going anywhere. While Westin gets day-to-day operating authority, Arledge is staying on as chairman. “Technically, I’ll be involved in everything I’m involved in now, but I won’t be running it,” he says, sitting in his corner office with its gleaming wall of 36 Emmy statuettes. “Practically, I don’t think it’ll work out quite that way. I’ll be involved in things that interest me.”

What does interest Roone? His face comes alive as he talks about ABC News – he loves the place, he’s still fascinated by the minutiae, he can’t stop the urge to tweak shows to make them better. Just this morning, he tells me, he called the graphics department to complain that the colors on the ABC logo were out of whack. “I critique things – I do that with every show we’ve got. Sometimes the little things are the things nobody looks at.”

He wants to see if he can make political-convention coverage more lively; he gets a kick out of phoning Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts during their Sunday-morning broadcast if there’s a question he wants the guest to answer. Arledge still expects to be making these kind of calls in the weeks and months ahead and believes he can do so without undermining Westin’s authority. Maybe he can. At least the two men don’t focus on the same details.

“Roone called me twice during today’s show,” GMA’s co-host Lisa McRee said one recent morning, adding that Westin had trekked down to the control room a few days earlier. “Roone said he wants me to wear red. I don’t think David cares about the color of my jacket, but he has different aesthetic things he cares about.”

But while many ABC employees grumble about answering to two masters, Arledge insists that everything is just fine. “People start off with the notion that there has to be some power struggle going on,” says Arledge. “Then they find out it’s just not so.” But he concedes that skepticism about the arrangement may be justified, given the way he exiled two previous pretenders to his throne. First, Capital Cities execs Dan Burke and Tom Murphy, at the time ABC’s corporate chieftains, installed Steve Weiswasser to cut costs and bring order to Arledge’s chaotic management style. Weiswasser – also a former corporate counsel – lasted two years, and Arledge angrily calls him “the biggest mistake this company ever made.”

Next came World News Tonight executive producer Paul Friedman. The producer had been assured by ABC’s top brass he’d have the authority to run the news division without interference from Arledge. They were wrong. “Paul was set up,” says one eyewitness to the resulting carnage. “He was told that Roone would be off playing golf and it was his news division.” Friedman spent three frustrated years in the heir apparent’s job before being bounced back to World News last year. “Paul is a very good producer,” Arledge says, and then can’t resist adding, “but he was not the right person to run an organization like this, which had magazine shows and other things he didn’t particularly have much respect for.”

Meanwhile, as the succession battle dragged on, the talent drain accelerated, as top ABC correspondents and producers concluded that this was no longer a fun or rewarding place to work. Neal Shapiro fled to NBC, where he revamped the network’s embarrassment of a news magazine, Dateline, into a ratings power-house. The highly regarded Rick Kaplan, who held a series of top producing jobs at ABC, took over as head of CNN in 1997 and began to raid his former company, hiring away political analyst Jeff Greenfield, correspondent Judd Rose, and even Iger’s wife, Willow Bay, in quick succession.

Oddly enough, insiders believe that what helped Westin escape Arledge’s ax was his extramarital romance with colleague Sherrie Rollins, who was then married to GOP consultant Ed Rollins. Rumors of their romance became tabloid fodder just after he was installed in the stepping-stone position of ABC News president.

Westin, who was also married at the time (he and his second wife are in the midst of a divorce), arrived at the job so wounded that he wasn’t perceived as worth attacking – why bother shooting a man who is in the process of committing suicide? Iger was furious; rumors made the rounds that he had asked Westin point-blank about the affair before anointing him president, and that Westin had lied. “David and I are completely over the entire incident,” says Iger, who doesn’t deny the story. “But it didn’t cause me to second-guess my decision, ever, and my support since he’s been in the job has only grown.”

Day after day, as his relationship was dissected in the gossip columns, Westin tried to act nonchalant. “Certainly it made it harder for me to do the job initially,” he says. “Rumors and speculation and talking in the hallways.” Talking about this period of his life, Westin looks grim until I suggest that maybe a sex scandal wasn’t so bad for his image – it certainly hasn’t hurt Clinton. He explodes into laughter. Westin and Rollins now share a house in Bronxville, along with Rollins’s 3-year-old daughter, Lily.

Trying quietly to make his mark at ABC, Westin has been drawing on his legal background; he has taken an especially active role in directing the coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “He’s been more hands-on and engaged in the editorial process than I would have expected,” says Chris Isham, the ABC senior producer who heads the investigative unit. In the early months of the Clinton scandal, Westin explained the legal issues at stake and impressed the staff by refusing to back down when ABC got complaints about its aggressive coverage. “David was very helpful on legal issues,” concurs Jackie Judd, ABC’s Washington-based lead correspondent on the story. “He was completely supportive when we were getting a lot of heat from the White House.”

He has also tried to bring a little civility to the bruising news-gathering process, a kinder gentler attitude that he says reflects his Christian upbringing. As a child, Westin attended two church services on Sunday and prayer meetings on Wednesday nights, in Flint and then Ann Arbor, where his father worked in the auto industry. “It was a dedicated life built around the church,” he says; no card playing, drinking, smoking, or even movies. When ABC dispatched planes full of reporters and camera crews down to Jonesboro, Arkansas, to cover the school-shooting deaths, Westin sent word that he didn’t want staff members to harass people to get interviews. “We’re dealing with people who aren’t used to network-news crews, at a time they are most vulnerable,” Westin says. “I wanted to make sure we treat people with respect and sensitivity. If we lose an interview or two, so be it.”

The care and feeding of ABC’s anchors is a major part of Westin’s job, and he has certainly worked hard at it. “I like him a great deal,” says Barbara Walters, noting that Westin sent her flowers and a note after her Oscar special. Unlike Arledge, who summons people to his office when he wants to see them and is notorious for not returning phone calls, Westin has gone out of his way to be available and collegial. “David comes down – Roone never comes down” to the third-floor newsroom, says Jennings. “He’s made himself very accessible.” Asked about Westin’s solicitous courting of ABC’s stars, Diane Sawyer bursts into laughter. “We can’t be flattered – not us anchors, not us egomaniacal on-air people.”

Last month, Westin pushed through his first major decision as president, a consolidation that provoked anxiety throughout the news division. During ABC’s May rollout of fall programs at the New Amsterdam Theatre, Westin took the stage to announce that he was “combining the great strengths” of 20/20 and PrimeTime Live into an all-new 20/20 to debut in September. As an omniscient announcer introduced “the reporting superstars the world has come to know and trust,” the new revolving teams of anchors trooped gamely onto the stage where the lions and elephants and gazelles of The Lion King usually roam: Walters, Sawyer, Donaldson, and new additions Connie Chung and Charles Gibson. (Hugh Downs was out of town.) They smiled blandly for the cameras, revealing none of the angst that accompanied this shotgun marriage.

The irony in this merger has not been missed at ABC: that the anchors of the two news magazines – among the only ABC programs that regularly air in the top twenty and often the top ten – are being punished for their success. In hopes of cutting costs and emulating the ratings bonanza of NBC’s four-night-a-week Dateline, ABC decided to go for one much-hyped brand-name show. Westin hoped that combining the shows would also quell internal rivalry over breaking news interviews. Insiders say producers of the two shows sometimes seem more obsessed with one-upping each other than with worrying about NBC or CBS.

In the weeks before the official announcement, both Sawyer and Walters – longtime competitors – repeatedly insisted that they were willing to work together but raised concerns that a hybrid show would alienate audiences. Remember that fun pairing of Dan Rather and Connie Chung? “What we’re worried about in merging everything is losing our personality,” says Walters.

Westin has held an endless series of meetings with producers to try to thrash things out, and the negotiating over the logistics is likely to drag out through the summer. A major problem is that the shows have dramatically different corporate cultures. PrimeTime Live has been the breaking-news, perennially over-budget, anything-can-happen show, or as Sawyer says, “We are famous for jumping out of the plane and then figuring out, does anyone have a parachute?”

Meanwhile, 20/20, led by the unflappable executive producer Victor Neufeld, has been known as a place where the trains run on time: The twice-weekly shows are taped in the afternoon and segments are usually crafted well in advance. Given a choice between creative chaos or a smoothly running operation, Westin chose Neufeld as executive producer of the merged shows. PrimeTime producer Phyllis McGrady’s consolation prize was a vice-presidency and a job as executive producer of special projects. She will still handle breaking news stories for 20/20.

The unmistakable perception is that Sawyer lost out in this power struggle, although she spins a positive line. “This is not the Montagues and the Capulets,” Sawyer says, adding that she doesn’t perceive the demise of PrimeTime Live as a defeat. “If you can keep everything we’ve stood for, the PrimeTime innovation, I don’t think any of us are going to war over names.”

But though Sawyer recently signed a multiyear contract extension and insists, “I’m not unhappy,” many in-house observers bet it’s only a matter of time before she will defect, lured by salivating competitors waving open checkbooks.

The recent changes have been more traumatic for the roughly 200 ABC staffers who work on the two shows, particularly for PrimeTime staffers loyal to McGrady. Cynthia McFadden, a PrimeTime correspondent, says, “Everybody’s wondering, what does this mean for them? It’s hard not to be anxious.” The paranoia is so intense that when Sawyer was spotted shortly before the announcement lunching with Arledge and news vice-president Joanna Bistany at Café des Artistes, their body language was being analyzed by ABC staffers by the time they got back to the office. What did it mean that Arledge was sweating and Sawyer looked grim?

“People are talking about that?” says a bemused Arledge, insisting that the conversation had primarily been about Sawyer’s husband, Mike Nichols, and his movie Primary Colors rather than about ABC’s news magazines. But he’s not surprised at the internal investigative reporting by ABC’s reporters and producers. “It’s their job to read tea leaves. It’s what they do for a living.” But is it really worth upsetting ABC’s top talent – not to mention tampering with a winning formula – in an uncertain quest for higher ratings? “I think it’s the right answer,” says Westin, “but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fraught with peril.”

Westin has been closely examining all the ABC news shows. For the moment only Nightline, which consistently draws strong ratings, is safe from tampering. World News Tonight had its makeover in January, when Paul Friedman revamped the format to try to reinvigorate Jennings’s role. “I wanted to make Peter more the center of the broadcast,” says Friedman, who scrapped segments like “Person of the Week” and “American Agenda” and added the newsy “A Closer Look,” a six-to-seven-minute piece on the hot issue of the day. The new black-and-white opening sequence shows Jennings in rolled-up shirtsleeves as a working reporter, and the anchorman gets a few more minutes of airtime each night.

The hypercompetitive anchor is said to be pleased with his pumped-up role but still frets about his continued loss in the ratings to Brokaw. Jennings dates the decline of World News Tonight to ABC’s coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. “We had one of those high-minded meetings to say this is very engaging but we aren’t going to be slaves to the trial,” he said. “NBC clearly saw an opportunity there and opened up six or seven minutes. When the trial was over, we discovered we had lost a large chunk of audience.”

A panicky decision by ABC execs to ape NBC’s newscast just made things worse, as World News Tonight began shifting directions at a dizzying rate. “You know what happens in journalism, when one guy is successful, the others tend to follow him,” Jennings said. “We weren’t newsy enough, doing soft features, trying to match NBC. Audiences must have thought it was unbecoming.”

The latest changes have gone over well with viewers, however: The nightly-news race has tightened in recent months, and ABC, while still second, has picked up viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic segment favored by advertisers. Westin pronounces himself pleased with the new anchor-friendly format, saying, “I think it’s critical that the audience knows that Peter is more than an attractive man who reads the news.”

of course, over all these ratings and content problems looms a gigantic pair of mouse ears. At first, journalists were mildly amused when pay envelopes arrived stamped with pictures of Mickey Mouse or Goofy, or when they received the annual Christmas letter from Disney chairman Michael Eisner that begins, “Dear Cast Member.” But this year the corporate presence has seemed far less benign, as employees, already worried about budget cuts that might cost them their jobs, have been forced into a pared-down Disney managed-care health plan.

Once the furor over 20/20 subsides, the biggest remaining headache at ABC News will be fixing the Godzilla-size disaster that is Good Morning America. In a year when NBC’s Today show could boast of a 7 percent increase, to 6.2 million viewers, and newly feisty CBS This Morning posted a 14 percent increase, to 2.9 million viewers, Good Morning America has stumbled badly, as the show’s ratings fell 13 percent, to 3.9 million viewers. The show had long been produced by ABC’s entertainment division, but in 1995, as ratings began to sag, it was kicked over to a reluctant news division to produce.

ABC News doesn’t know what to do with the program. In desperation, ABC executives seem to be trying everything at once. GMA’s anchors have been replaced, its executive producer has been replaced twice, and the set’s been redone. In a nod to the Today show, GMA is moving to a ground-floor studio in Times Square next fall. But so far the new show continues to flop.

GMA’s recent hiring of antediluvian gossip maven Cindy Adams seems like a stroke of desperation, but hey, you never know. More worrisome for ABC’s reputation as a news organization was the show’s broadcast heralding the opening of Animal Kingdom, the new Disney theme park. Other news shows covered the story, but GMA presented what amounted to a two-hour infomercial for Disney. Weatherman Spencer Christian kept gushing about how “authentic” the African villages were, while McRee likened the work of creating the park to “the Book of Genesis.” It was positively painful to watch an obviously uncomfortable McRee lob Michael Eisner such softball questions as “Would Walt Disney approve of this?”

Asked about the much-maligned segment, Westin grimaces and offers a lawyerly defense. “Insofar as it happened, it didn’t come from Disney. There was no pressure from Michael Eisner,” he insists. He defends the show as visually entertaining television, adding that GMA did include a story about animal deaths at the park. “It’s awfully difficult five days a week to get your stride right,” he admits, “to show some enthusiasm but not go over the top.”

No one will ever accuse Westin of going over the top. But that may be the point. David Westin’s appointment represents a diagnosis by Iger and the Disney hierarchy that what ABC News needs is not an Arledge-like avalanche of new ideas but a period of stability. What Westin offers is a calming humane presence amid the hurly-burly of competitive and corporate pressures. But is he the man to restore ABC’s former glory? Stay tuned.

Is this man ready for Prime Time?