Gordon Peterson, who for 33 years has anchored Channel 9's 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts, has been taken off the late shift at the once dominant Gannett-owned station, which is continuing its battle with declining ratings.
Channel 9 announced yesterday that Todd McDermott, a weekend anchor and reporter with WCBS in New York, will replace Peterson on the 11 p.m. newscast and will team with Tracey Neale, who arrived at the station from rival Channel 5 this summer amid much hype. The duo debuts Monday.
Peterson, who joined the station in 1969, is the market's longest-serving anchor. He will continue on the 6 p.m. newscast, for now, where he will co-anchor with Neale beginning Tuesday. He will report for the late-night newscast on the presidential election.
But Peterson's future with the station remains unclear. The newsman's contract with WUSA expires at the end of the year, and they have yet to reach an agreement on a new deal, according to Peterson's lawyer, Robert Barnett.
"We continue our discussions with WUSA-TV about a long-term relationship for Gordon Peterson," Barnett said.
Station General Manager Darryll Green said yesterday the station has offered Peterson a new contract, but Green would not say whether the offer included anchoring a newscast or even continuing to host the Saturday public affairs show "Inside Washington."
McDermott will also co-anchor the 5 p.m. news with J.C. Hayward. That pair will also premiere Tuesday.
McDermott, who has worked at WCBS since 2000, dismissed the word "replacement" yesterday when describing his new job. "Nobody replaces Gordon Peterson," McDermott said. "He is who he is.
"I think what I can do is bring some of my skills . . . and add it to what else is here on this team," said McDermott, who also worked at Baltimore's ABC affiliate WMAR for two years.
Peterson was present at a staff-wide meeting yesterday afternoon at WUSA's headquarters when Green introduced the new players. "I welcome them," Peterson later said. "They are going to be working with some of the greatest people on the face of the Earth. I wish them the best."
He declined to discuss the contract negotiations.
The station also announced yesterday that local radio personality and former Channel 5 sports anchor Brett Haber will replace Frank Herzog as the station's 5, 6 and 11 p.m. sportscaster. Haber will make his debut Nov. 1.
The announcements by Channel 9 complete an extreme makeover of a news team that has struggled in the ratings recently and, for more than a decade, has not been able to reclaim its dominance of the 1980s.
In the recent May sweeps, the station finished last at 5 and 6 p.m. although it still places second at 11 p.m. (WTTG finished second in late night but airs its news an hour earlier, at 10.) It also has been suffering in early mornings, placing last in May.
Green also said yesterday he is "in the final phases of our search" to replace former news director Dave Roberts, who was let go last month.
If Peterson were not to return next year, he would be the most prominent of the station's veterans to leave in recent years. Besides Herzog, the station also issued pink slips to longtime sports reporter and anchor Ken Mease in 2000 and Mike Buchanan last year.
Peterson joined the station in 1969 when it was owned by Post Newsweek and its call letters were still WTOP. In 1971, he was teamed with Max Robinson, who left WUSA for ABC in 1978 to become the first African American co-anchor of a network newscast. Peterson's longest partner on the news desk was Maureen Bunyan, with whom he was paired in 1978 through the mid-1990s. The duo anchored the city's top-rated newscasts through the 1980s.
In February the station paid tribute to Peterson on his 35th anniversary and replayed clips of him reporting from 1980 war-torn Cambodia, a segregated South Africa in 1981 and postwar Kuwait in 1991. He also has covered every national convention since 1972.
"There seems to be a pattern here," Buchanan, who is now a reporter with Channel 7, said yesterday when asked about Peterson's uncertain future. "I was there 33 years. I thought I was going to get a gold watch. I got a rusty shaft and I'm mad. I'm angry because I see a once great news operation being imploded."
Haber becomes WUSA's sixth lead sports anchor since 1992, following the death of beloved Glenn Brenner. Haber joined Fox-owned WTTG in 1997, where he once sat next to Neale on the news desk, and left three years later to anchor the 11 p.m. newscast at WCBS, where he sat with McDermott.
His contract at WCBS was not renewed in 2002 after a two-year stint.
Haber said yesterday he would officially sign off from his radio show on WWZZ-FM, Z-104, this morning. He has hosted a morning drive time show there for the last two years.
"I would be foolish to try and replace Frank Herzog," Haber said, echoing McDermott's comments about Peterson. "There is no replacing a legend."
Herzog, who was told this summer by station management that it was letting his contract expire, was surprised yesterday when told of Haber's November start date.
"I was hoping they just terminated everything last week so I could go to London with my wife," he said.