For a while yesterday, it looked like Barbara Walters might be headed for Washington as part of an ABC News plan to present the Walters-Harry Reasomer evening news from separate cities beginning some time in this spring.
By by late afternoon, ABC News president William Sheehan, who had been quoted by Chicago Daily News columnist Frank Swertlow as "actively considering the move," was dismissing the story as "rumor."
He had even sent a note to the ABC Evening News staff reassuring "the team" that "there are no plans to move either of the anchor positions to Washington."
Sheehan did not deny that he had held a long telephone conversion with Swertlow on Wednesday in which the subject of a move for Walters, whose career at ABC Swertlow described as "a bust," was discussed.
"Sure we talked," Sheehan said, "about a whole range of things but not in any sense in the spirit of the story Frank wrote.
"You talk one way if you're talking philosophically and another way if you're talking specifics.
Sheehan said yesterday that "Before Barbara joined us, we talked about the possibility of her going to Washington and it was in that spirit that I talked to Frank about the subject, nothing more."
At this point," said Sheehan, "I'd have to say there are no plans to move anybody out of New York."
Swertlow's copyrighted story said that the Reasoner-Walters $5 million "on-air marriage" was heading for the divorce courts on grounds of "incompatability."
He quoted Sheehan as saying "there are a lot of positive things she can do from Washington. We are actively considering the move."
"Among those things," Swertlow quoted Sheehan as suggesting, "would he the opportunity to concentrate on interviewing new officials of the Carter administration and also to restore contacts with other political figures."
Swertlow added that "Miss Walters also could occupy the role of the queen of Washington society."
"I don't think there will be a move until the spring," Sheehan told Swertlow. "Barbara has a child who is still in school. Sheedan added that "Miss Walters is not opposed to the change of scenery."
The Swertlow column was picked up by the New York Post yesterday, and excerpts moved on the AP wire, prompting Sheehan to issue a five paragraph denial.
"Rumors that Barbara Walters will go to Washington to do her portion of the ABC Evening News from that city are untrue," Sheehan said through a spokesman. "She will continue to coanchor the news from new York with Harry Reasoner.
"These rumors were partially inspired," Sheehan continued, "by reports that the ABC Evening News was not faring well in the ratings.
"As a matter of fact, the program is reaching nearly 2 million new viewers since the premiere of the ABC (news) with Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters in October, 1976."
Swertlow had repoted that ABC News is "locked into the ratings basement below CBS and NBC and, insome respects, the broadcast is doing worse than when Reasoner was a solo act."
Swertlow said yesterday he was referring to the fact that ABC's nightly audience share - about 17 per cent of viewers watching the three competing networks news shows each night - was averaging about two points less than a year ago. NBC averages about a 25 share, while CBS is around 29.
"Viewership is up for all TV this year," Swertlow said yesterday, "so the audience jump isn't as important as the share."
Sheehan, in his note to the news staff late yesterday, said:
"Number one, there are no plans to move either of the anchor positions to Washington and number two, we are very pleased with the progress of the team and there is every evidence it will continue."
He said the Reasoner-Walters show was reaching 2.3 million more viewers each week, an audience increase of 16 per cent over a year ago.
"More importantly," Sheehan said, "two thirds of audience gain is among young adults between 18 and 49", a key factor for potential advertisers.
Barbara Walters commented last night: "There is no truth to the rumor, ABC has issued a statement and that statement is the truth."