By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006
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."
"Both Elizabeth and I have been on television doing this for a long time," Woodruff says. "It's not as if we're brand-new." But neither is accustomed to the intense scrutiny.
The mantra at the network headquarters on West 66th Street is two anchors for two people's work. "It has opened the door to having the resources to cover the news in a different way," says Executive Producer Jon Banner. "We can send one anchor hither and yon without having to worry about something breaking while they're away."
But the newscast has a split-screen feel, even when both anchors are here in New York, where they have been squeezed onto Jennings's horseshoe-shaped set, now being rebuilt to accommodate two people. They rarely address each other on camera or appear together, except to recite the headlines at the top and to say goodbye at the end. No one would have any way of knowing they are friends. Banner says they want to use every available second for news.
"Nobody should expect to see morning television at 6:30 in the evening. Ain't gonna happen," he says.
"I don't think we're ever going to be in the chitchat mode," Vargas says.
The show-on-the-road motif has its pluses and minuses. Do viewers really care whether an anchor, as opposed to a beat reporter, is on the scene in an age when cable news hopscotches around the world all day and night? On the other hand, the time and expense involved in moving an anchor, crew and support staff means the story at hand will undoubtedly get more attention.
Earlier this month, ABC dispatched Woodruff from Iran to Israel -- a difficult route involving a long delay in Turkey -- when it looked as if Ariel Sharon was about to die. When the prime minister hung on, Woodruff's presence looked superfluous. He says he "argued vociferously" against overplaying the daily Sharon updates.
"The great danger is to overemphasize the story simply because the anchor is there," Woodruff says.
But when Woodruff was in Mountain View, Calif., for a previously planned interview with the founders of Google, he arrived on a day when the Internet giant was under fire for refusing to turn over search records in a federal pornography probe. "Sometimes you get lucky," he says.
At 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Woodruff called Banner from Amman, Jordan, to say he was going back to Israel after learning that the terrorist group Hamas had won the Palestinian elections. Although he would have been reluctant to send a solo anchor to the Middle East as Bush's State of the Union address was approaching, Banner says, with two anchors, "that was a no-brainer."
Still, everyone knows that Vargas and Woodruff, and the second-place newscast they inherited, face an uphill climb in the battle for ratings and advertising dollars.
They averaged 9.09 million viewers last week, more than 1 million behind "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" but about 1.2 million ahead of the resurgent "CBS Evening News With Bob Schieffer." The ABC newscast has also lost 800,000 viewers since the season began. But the others have shed viewers as well, and Banner was encouraged by a slight narrowing of the gap with NBC compared with a year earlier.
It would be hard to describe the revamped "World News Tonight" as anything but serious and solid. But critics, as is their wont, have focused more on the theatrical aspects, and many have been unkind.
While Washington Post columnist Tina Brown called Vargas "hot," San Diego Union-Tribune critic Robert Laurence complained about her "histrionic" facial expressions and "dramatic vocal inflections." New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd dubbed Woodruff a "pretty boy android," while Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert branded him a "robot."
"We all care what people think," Woodruff says. "But so much is at a personal and stylistic level."
"They're entitled to their opinion," Vargas says. "I'm too busy to focus on it."
* * *
As an Army brat, Vargas didn't have an easy path to the top.
After growing up in Germany and Okinawa without a television set, Vargas was reporting at a Reno television station in the mid-1980s when she applied for an anchoring job in Phoenix.
"She wasn't very good," says Phil Alvidrez, a former executive at KTVK who reviewed her tape. "She wasn't polished enough to be an anchor in Phoenix." But Alvidrez hired her as a reporter, and "she was special. She was headstrong and ambitious but really coachable. She wanted to get better. She was passionate." When Alvidrez passed her over for a weekend anchor job, she left the ABC affiliate for the CBS station in Chicago.
By 1993 Vargas had made it to NBC, where she became a correspondent and anchor for "Dateline" and "Today," and weekend anchor for "NBC Nightly News." She was one of the few Hispanic women ever to play at that level -- her father is Puerto Rican, her mother Irish American -- and naturally seemed to draw media attention.
ABC lured her away in 1996, and she became the news anchor for "Good Morning America" amid widespread speculation that she would succeed Joan Lunden as a co-host. Vargas drew a spate of bad press when anonymous executives suggested she was insisting on star treatment, and she was soon reassigned as a correspondent.
"It's hard to join a show as a member of an anchor team that's been there for a very long time," Vargas says.
She soon became a gossip-column staple during a romance with actor Michael Douglas. "That was just weird," she says. "It was really impossible to date someone that famous for a few years and not have it be picked up on."
It was just a year and a half ago that Vargas became a co-anchor at "20/20," an assignment she is not giving up. Her reports on that program and in a series of prime-time hours have focused on the more emotional side of journalism: murders in Yosemite National Park; the JonBenet Ramsey case; same-sex marriages; and "Vanished" specials on people who have disappeared.
In 2002 Vargas married singer-songwriter Marc Cohn, and they have a son who is nearly 3. She is also stepmother to Cohn's 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. That "blended family," as she put it, prompted her to ask Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- whom she had met at a Hispanic awards banquet -- about his two out-of-wedlock children, born to different mothers, during an interview last week. It was the kind of question that came naturally to someone who had done numerous personal stories on prime-time magazine shows.
Her family narrowly escaped its own brush with tragedy. In August, Cohn was shot in the head by a would-be carjacker after a performance in Denver, but the wound to his temple turned out not to be serious and he has fully recovered. The alleged assailant is awaiting trial.
Vargas is well aware that she is the third woman to serve as a nightly news co-anchor, and that the two others -- Barbara Walters with Harry Reasoner and Connie Chung with Dan Rather -- suffered disastrous fates. But those women were thrust upon long-established stars.
"The beauty of this arrangement is that Bob and I come into this as co-equals," Vargas says. She appears unruffled by the skeptics.
"My entire career, there have always been people flashier than me, attracting more attention than me," Vargas says. "I've always been under the radar."
Woodruff, for his part, never set out to be a journalist. After growing up in suburban Detroit, he went to the University of Michigan Law School, where roommate Kevin Ruf recalls him as a great rugby and lacrosse player who liked to fish and hunt at his parents' cabin. "He's one of those guys, everything seemed pretty effortless for him," Ruf says.
After practicing law in New York, Woodruff learned Mandarin Chinese and in 1989 moved to Beijing for a teaching post with his new wife, Lee. When the violence erupted at Tiananmen Square, he became a translator and "fixer" for CBS. The couple moved to San Francisco, where Woodruff practiced law for another two years, but shortly after their first child was born, he quit.
"I had tasted something I thought would be so much more fulfilling to me," Woodruff says.
"While the rest of us were at big law firms making a lot of money," Ruf says, "Bob got poor Lee to move to Redding, California, so he could be a one-man band at some little Podunk station." From that $12,000-a-year job, Woodruff gradually jumped to stations in Richmond and Phoenix before joining ABC in 1996, where he was dispatched to Washington and London.
Woodruff says his goal was "to be the best damn foreign correspondent I could be," and he seemed to follow the Jennings model. After the 9/11 attacks, he spent four months in Pakistan. During the Iraq war, he was embedded with an Army unit. He was deeply affected by his hurricane coverage in New Orleans, recalling "people calling for help and not being answered, seeing bodies on the streets of a great American city."
Woodruff has four children, ranging from 12 to 5-year-old twins, and he and Vargas often talk about the struggle to balance family with their new jobs.
* * *
Monday's 15-minute Webcast has other interesting pieces, such as one on musicians bypassing record companies to take their songs to the Internet, that were pitched for "World News Tonight" but didn't make the cut. No one at ABC knows how many people are watching these 3 p.m. programs, which are prepared as meticulously as the broadcast itself, but the newsroom got a boost this week when Apple's iTunes said the show was the top-rated news podcast, and No. 12 overall.
With 29 minutes to air time, the control room is in a tizzy. Vargas is supposed to tease the newscast with the anchors of ABC's Philadelphia station, but she can't hear anything in her earpiece. They miss the live shot but fix the problem in time for a chat with WJLA's Gordon Peterson in Washington.
Banner, meanwhile, is making last-minute changes to scripts. The lead story, which has remained constant all day, is the layoffs and restructuring at Ford, with Dean Reynolds live in Dearborn, Mich., and Dan Harris analyzing the automaker's strategy. This will be followed by reports on Bush defending his domestic surveillance program and David Kerley on West Virginia passing a mine safety law. Vargas fiddles with the introduction to Kerley's piece to make it more national in scope.
With 11 minutes to go, Banner is on the phone with correspondent Bill Redeker, who is crashing a piece on Kobe Bryant's big night for the West Coast update. "Can it be a little different than what everyone's been doing all day long?" Banner asks, looking for some graphics to jazz up a story that will be old news in Los Angeles by the time they come on.
Finally, it's show time for Vargas. "Good evening. Bob Woodruff is on assignment tonight. They are calling it Black Monday at Ford Motor Company . . ."
The broadcast goes smoothly, and Vargas returns to the newsroom after taping a promo for a series on cancer prevention. But she still has three hours to go. Since ABC has committed to live feeds for the Western time zones, she must stick around to do the show twice more, at 8:30 and 9:30 Eastern, when Bryant will finally get his moment.
Whether Vargas and Woodruff will get their moment -- whether they will be recognized as worthy heirs to the man whose spirit still infuses the place -- remains an open question. An equally open question is whether the tag-team approach and Internet presence produce journalism that appeals to a mass audience, or whether, in the end, all that matters is stardom.
On a column in the newsroom hangs a poster with Jennings's picture, announcing that his newscast had won an Edward R. Murrow Award. It is a reminder that ABC is still feeling its way through a transition that no one wanted.
"It's a tremendous motivator," Woodruff says, "to know that Peter is watching and what we have to live up to."