Anchor Duo To Succeed Jennings at ABC News
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
ABC News named Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff as its evening news co-anchors yesterday, opting for a younger and more diverse look for the coveted assignment after failing to reach an agreement with veteran Charlie Gibson.
Four months after the death of Peter Jennings, ABC is gambling on the first dual-anchor and male-female pairing on a network evening newscast since the ill-fated coupling of CBS's Dan Rather and Connie Chung more than a decade ago. ABC executives were clearly reluctant to break up a successful "Good Morning America" team by tapping Gibson, 62, and "World News Tonight" had already been using Vargas, 43, and Woodruff, 44, as temporary anchors.
Gibson wanted the job, but the two sides could not strike a deal.
Vargas, who was raised by a Puerto Rican father and an Irish American mother, said yesterday that she brings a different mix of views to the job because "I'm a woman, I'm a working mother, I'm a minority. Being a mom is the biggest, most important role in my entire life. . . . Especially as a woman, I really, really want to do this well. It's important to have a woman be successful in this role."
Filling in after Jennings's death "has been tough and trying and tragic for everyone here," she said. "Bob and I are taking seriously the legacy he left behind, to do hard news and do it well. We've been really lucky the audience has stuck with us in this time of uncertainty."
Woodruff, who told the staff "this is awesome," said the arrangement will free him to continue his field reporting. "Peter used to say to me, 'Be careful what you wish for, because you're going to end up in a chair and not out on the stories you love.' " In the past, said the lawyer-turned-journalist, "I wanted to become the best damn foreign correspondent in the business. I never really thought about anchoring."
ABC News President David Westin actually offered the job to Gibson last week, but not on terms he could accept, according to two sources familiar with the process who declined to be identified discussing details of personnel matters. Gibson wanted to remain anchor through the 2008 elections, while Westin was offering only a two-year tenure, with duties to be shared with Vargas and Woodruff in a three-anchor arrangement.
"I'm very pleased for them and hoping they'll have a long and successful run," Gibson said, adding that he is quite happy on the morning show. "David and I had long discussions, which simply broke down over the issue of the length of time to do it."
Westin gave the new anchors the news Thursday, with Woodruff in his New York office after returning from Mississippi and Vargas on the phone from New Orleans, where she had just been dispatched. While neither is as well known as Jennings at the end of his life, Westin said, "both Bob and Elizabeth will be earning that relationship day after day with the quality of what they put on the air."
The new duo will be competing with 46-year-old Brian Williams, whose "NBC Nightly News" leads the ratings pack, and possibly Katie Couric, 48, if CBS's aggressive effort to lure her from "Today" to succeed Bob Schieffer is successful. The ABC newscast has maintained its second-place ranking under Vargas and Woodruff.
The anchors plan to remain on duty for an additional three hours each night to deliver two live versions for the western United States -- sometimes with different lead stories -- a first for the broadcast networks. ABC says that both will contribute to a daily blog and that parts of "World News Tonight" will be made available online even before the broadcast. Williams has pioneered anchor-blogging, and both NBC and CBS have been putting their newscasts on the Internet in different forms.
Despite these new wrinkles, the networks seem to be preserving the basic franchise after two decades of eroding audiences and criticism that 6:30 newscasts are anachronisms in an age of round-the-clock news. The programs still reach a combined audience of 25 million, and although the departure of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Jennings after more than two decades sparked talk of a radical departure, change comes hard.