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Remodeling ABC News, without too much dust

ABC News is reordering some of its most important players, but the network hopes to keep the changes low-key.
Image: Charlie Gibson
Charlie Gibson will be replaced by Diane Sawyer as the lead anchor on ABC's "World News."Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

For changes that seem so sweeping, the reordering of the most important players at ABC News this month is being played more like a couple of casual early moves in a game of checkers.

Diane Sawyer is off “Good Morning America” and into the anchor chair of the network’s evening newscast, “World News,” starting Dec. 21; George Stephanopoulos is off the Sunday show “This Week” and into Ms. Sawyer’s old slot, starting Monday.

For ABC News, the moves have broad implications. Both programs rank No. 2 to NBC’s offerings, and the competitive situation is only getting worse.

But the changes have been accompanied by a scrupulous and clearly conscious lack of fanfare. Not only are both new anchors sliding onto the air with a minimum of promotion, they are doing it in December, when viewing levels are lower — and most first-stringers in all forms of television depart for extended holiday leaves.

David Westin, the president of ABC News, said that although they might be fewer in number in December, “viewers are still there, and there is still news.”

But there is little doubt that ABC is deliberately trying to avoid the kind of media frenzy that surrounded the arrival of Katie Couric in the anchor chair at CBS. One ABC executive said that Ms. Sawyer’s first newscast is unlikely to be subjected to a raft of critical pieces in the press or on Internet blogs — as Ms. Couric’s was.

Though he did not mention Ms. Couric’s example specifically, Mr. Westin said that “some of these blowouts can be a little self-referential,” adding that “I always prefer to overperform rather than overpromise.”

“World News” with Charles Gibson as anchor broke through briefly to claim the top-rated spot more than a year ago. But for 59 of the last 60 weeks, NBC and its anchor, Brian Williams, have had the most-watched evening newscast. And this year, Mr. Williams has widened the gap to an average of 880,000 viewers, up from 318,000 last year. (CBS has been stuck in third place.)

Nor will it help that after September 2011, ABC stations will be without one of the most valuable lead-ins in television, “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Mornings still a challenge for ABC
Still, it is the morning — where most of the money is made in network news — that remains the daunting challenge for ABC. NBC’s “Today” show hasn’t lost so much as a single week in 14 years, and the trend line is hardly encouraging for its competitors. In the past year, “Today” has increased its average weekly advantage over “Good Morning America” to 1.3 million viewers, from 880,000.

And ABC is now changing the leading player on both its shows at the same time.

“That does add an element of drama, now doesn’t it?” said Andrew Lack, the former president of NBC News, who is now the chief executive of Bloomberg’s multimedia group.

Mr. Lack agreed with the network’s low-key approach, but another executive with experience working with network newscasts and anchors in the midst of transitions suggested another reason for the soft sell.

“They are clearly using this low-key launch as a strategic cover for their declining ratings,” said the executive, who asked not to be identified because of professional connections to people affected by the changes at ABC.

Mr. Westin said that both shows also would undergo change over that period. For the morning, that is likely to mean an approach that is “a little harder, a little more urgent,” said Jim Murphy, the executive producer of “Good Morning America.” In part, that is because Mr. Stephanopoulos, like all anchors, will bring with him his preferences — especially political reporting.

“You always play to the strengths of your anchor,” Mr. Murphy said.

The morning has so many elements — not just newsmakers, but also latte makers — that adjustments may be more noticeable than on the evening newscast, where the format has resisted changes. Ms. Couric learned that when she tried a number of innovations early on that have since been dropped.

Ms. Sawyer, who is likely to benefit from not having to blaze the trail as the first woman to anchor solo, is not setting out to change the model.

Jon Banner, the executive producer of “World News,” said there might be some changes in the show’s look, but even the set Mr. Gibson has used will remain the same. Mr. Westin said Ms. Sawyer might engage in more cross-talk with correspondents (something Ms. Couric also does) because “Diane’s style is more conversational.”

But Ms. Sawyer is also known for pushing herself — and her staff — extremely hard. One producer who has worked with her in the past said, “They have no idea what they are in for; she will shake up that show.”

This article, "Remodeling ABC News, Without Too Much Dust," first appeared in the New York Times.