Correction to This Article
A Jan. 29 Style article incorrectly said that all three network evening newscasts lost viewers this season. The "CBS Evening News" has gained about 2 percent in average audience compared with the same period last year.

Two for the Road

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

NEW YORK

The familiar music swells, the prompter rolls, and Elizabeth Vargas is ready at the anchor desk, framed by a massive video wall.

She begins with breaking news -- Ford's 30,000 layoffs, President Bush defending domestic eavesdropping -- but soon is talking sports with ESPN's Fred Hickman.

"Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in this game last night -- that's huge!" Vargas says. "He was obviously on fire." (In case she wants to ad-lib, the prompter reminds her: "Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 in 1962.")

But television viewers won't be seeing this smiling and animated Vargas, clad in a gray turtleneck and clearly enjoying herself. It is Monday at 3 p.m., and she is delivering the daily Webcast, an online innovation launched when she and Bob Woodruff took over "World News Tonight" earlier this month. In 3 1/2 hours viewers will watch a more serious Vargas -- in a no-nonsense pinstriped jacket, plum blouse and necklace -- and they won't see the Bryant story, except on the updated edition for the West Coast, where the L.A. Lakers star is bigger news.

She is flying solo because Woodruff set off that morning for the Gaza Strip -- "I'm so jealous," Vargas told him -- where he will cover the Palestinian elections. This, too, is part of the new look, using anchors as roving correspondents to add a jolt of energy to an all-too-familiar format.

Vargas, 43, and Woodruff, 44, are in an odd situation. Although both are experienced journalists -- she rising to "20/20" co-anchor, he reporting from war zones around the world -- neither has the national image generally associated with network anchors. Neither was groomed for the job, because replacing Peter Jennings was unthinkable for ABC. So they are trying to fill the shoes of a broadcast giant whose abrupt death from lung cancer last August devastated the network, and in a twin-anchor format that hasn't worked since the Huntley-Brinkley days.

The gamble is obvious. Rather than tapping an established superstar, as CBS hopes to do by courting Katie Couric, or a carefully prepared understudy like NBC's Brian Williams, ABC News President David Westin is redefining the job. He wants the anchors constantly deployed in the field, which would play to their strengths as young and attractive interviewers rather than outsize personalities.

"Moving away from the studio -- the hermetically sealed, perfectly coiffed theory of anchoring -- there is risk in that," Westin says. "In my view, the greater risk is keeping it the way it was." The risk is that network news audiences will continue to shrink as younger viewers, in particular, seek faster, edgier reports elsewhere.

The second roll of the dice is that distribution matters, that offering an earlier peek at the newscast online and a later version for the West Coast will pay off down the road. ABC, like its rivals, is making more video available online in an effort to extend its brand beyond television, where news audiences have been shrinking for two decades.

The new kids on the anchor block have thrown themselves into the challenge with energy, optimism and lots of frequent-flier miles. Woodruff is on his second Middle East swing this month, while Vargas has reported from Washington and the West Virginia mine disaster.

"This isn't a cosmetic co-anchor pairing," Vargas says. "Bob and I are reporters first."


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