WUSA anchor Gordon Peterson is leaving Channel 9 next week after 35 years to join rival WJLA, Channel 7. The move, announced yesterday by WJLA, will reunite Peterson with Maureen Bunyan, another WUSA alum. Through the 1980s, Peterson and Bunyan anchored the city's top-rated newscasts at a seemingly untouchable WUSA. Beginning in early December, they will anchor WJLA's 6 p.m. newscast.
"It's a dream job at this stage in my career," Peterson, 66, said yesterday. "My old pal Maureen Bunyan is over there. What a joy . . . to be in the same workplace as her."
The move also reunites Peterson with weatherman Doug Hill, another popular WUSA alum of 16 years, who was signed by WJLA in 2000.
"Inside Washington," WUSA's weekly public affairs show moderated by Peterson and featuring a panel of journalists dissecting the news, will also move to WJLA and will air Sunday mornings rather than Saturday nights.
Peterson's defection is the second high-profile station swap this year, coming seven months after WTTG anchor Tracey Neale left the Fox station in March to sign with WUSA, a CBS affiliate. One month ago, Peterson was taken off WUSA's 11 p.m. newscast, which he had anchored since 1971, to make room for newcomers Neale and Todd McDermott. Peterson has continued to anchor the 6 p.m. news with Neale, while McDermott and J.C. Hayward have been anchoring at 5 p.m.
McDermott will now add the 6 p.m. newscast to his duties once Peterson leaves, according to WUSA General Manager Darryll Green.
"We're sorry to see Gordon leave," Green said. "We also thank him for his 35 years of service, his professionalism and experience he brought to the station." He added that there would be an "appropriate send-off" for Peterson next week.
Peterson's signing comes after four years of courting by WJLA. "We've hoped for quite some time that we could have him come to WJLA in some role," General Manager Fred Ryan said. "He was able . . . with his contract arrangement to make a move, and we're just very pleased he decided to move with us."
Peterson and his lawyer Bob Barnett negotiated for several months with WUSA management over his contract, which was set to expire at the end of the year. But when the station hired Neale from WTTG and McDermott a few months later from New York's WCBS, it became apparent that Peterson would no longer be the station's lead anchor.
Neither Peterson nor Barnett would comment on the final negotiations with WUSA, but both Green and Peterson confirmed that the station asked him to stay.
"We never really nailed it down," Peterson said yesterday about management's offer. "We didn't get into particulars.
"After 35 years, I think it's time for them to try something new and it's time for me to try something new."
Since WUSA introduced its new team last month, viewership has dropped at 5 and 6 p.m., where the station finishes last, but has remained steady in late night, where it places a solid second. Brett Haber, a former WTTG sports anchor, replaces Frank Herzog next week, completing the new team at WUSA.
Peterson was gracious about his soon-to-be former employer, calling his departure "bittersweet" and saying both WUSA and Gannett Co., the station's owner, have "treated me very well."
Asked about WUSA's ratings woes and recent shake-ups, which also included the departure of news director Dave Roberts this summer, Peterson was philosophical. "Whenever you try something new, there's a little bit of anxiety," he said. "I think they're waiting for the dust to settle to see where the station's going."
Peterson will replace Leon Harris, who is nearing his one-year anniversary at the station, at 6 p.m., but the former CNN anchor will continue to anchor at 5 p.m. with Kathleen Matthews and at 11 p.m. with Bunyan. (Matthews is on hiatus serving a fellowship at Harvard University this fall and will return in December.)
Ryan said Peterson's new role does not diminish Harris's standing at the station. "Leon is our chief anchor," Ryan said. "Leon actually has been part of this process. He has met with Gordon. When we talked about Gordon, right from the start [Harris] embraced the idea."
WJLA has seen improvement in its early-evening and late-night ratings at 5, 6 and 11 p.m. this past month compared with last October before Harris debuted. At 5 p.m., WJLA is up about 25 percent and in a near dead heat with WRC, and has improved about 20 percent from last October at 6 p.m., although it still trails WRC handily. WJLA is behind both WRC and WUSA at 11 p.m., but has improved nearly 25 percent from last year. The station has also benefited from parent network ABC's revived lineup, which includes the hits "Desperate Housewives," "Lost" and "Wife Swap."
Harris said he felt threatened for "10 seconds" when he first heard that his bosses were courting Peterson. "Then I thought about it and said: 'This is the equivalent of the Lakers bringing in Magic Johnson. Here's a chance to have some old Lakers fans come on board and revive the franchise.' "
Bunyan, who is on vacation this week, said in a statement relayed through her office that she is "delighted" to be teamed with her former partner. "He is the best, and there is no better place for him to be than this news operation," she said. "It will be wonderful to work with my old friend once again."
Peterson will officially be named a WJLA anchor tomorrow afternoon at a meeting at the station's Rosslyn headquarters, where he'll address staffers.
The silver-haired anchor joined WUSA in 1969 when the station was owned by Post-Newsweek and its call letters were WTOP. He joined the anchor desk two years later, where over the years he served with Max Robinson, Bunyan, Andrea Roane and Gurvir Dhindsa, who recently left for WTTG after her contract was not renewed.
Peterson, who has covered every political convention since 1972, will also serve as WJLA's "senior correspondent" to follow politics and world affairs. He said he is happy to shed the late-night newscast from his job description. "For 33 years I haven't been able to stick around for dessert," he said. "If friends invite me out for dinner, they have to put the food on the table early so I can get back" to the newsroom.
"Nobody's more delighted that I'm off late night than my wife is. What she says is, 'This is called normal living.' "