At a press breakfast Tuesday to unveil ABC’s newsmagazine show “Turning Point,” Roone Arledge, the web’s news prexy, answered reporters’ charges that the show is moving his division into the tabloid arena.

“Turning Point,” which airs tonight at 10 p.m. opposite CBS’ “48 Hours,” is touting itself to advertisers as having “stories ripped from today’s headlines.” Like its CBS counterpart, “Turning Point” will focus on a single story per episode (see related stories, pages 12, 35).

Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters will rotate as anchors, with Sawyer to chair the opening show. Peter Jennings will serve as occasional anchor — four such appearances are already scheduled.

Arledge also emphasized plans for “Day One’s” Forrest Sawyer to join the previously announced trio of rotating anchors.

The addition of “Turning Point” brings the number of ABC primetime newsmags to four, joining “Primetime Live,””Day One” and “20/20″ on the schedule. As such , the Alphabet web’s news division is a hubbub of activity, with many of its talking heads doing double and triple duty to fill all the newsmag anchor chairs.

To help alleviate the pressure, Arledge is conducting an in-house search for a new face to co-chair a revamped “Day One” with Forrest Sawyer and Diane Sawyer.

Murder mania

After laying out “Turning Point’s” specifics, Arledge was quizzed about his decision to kick off the program with a show on the “Charles Manson girls,” with an installment on the Gainesville, Fla., murders soon to follow.

“We knew if we put Manson on, a lot of people would say, ‘Here comes tabloid murders,’ ” Arledge said. He qualified the decision, telling reporters that “it shouldn’t have been the first program … but it’s one of those decisions you pragmatically make in order to get people to watch the first one.”

Arledge wasn’t alone in responding to the charge that the Alphabet web’s news division is moving in a tabloid direction.

Indeed, “Turning Point’s” team of anchors and correspondents seemed defensive about the issue, with some denying “Turning Point’s” tabloid aspects and others seeking to distance themselves from it.

John Donovan, a “Turning Point” correspondent and 12-year ABC veteran, insisted that, “in a way,it’s a program about the tabloidization of news … None of us who are working on the program want it to be a tabloid program.”

For his part, Peter Jennings, who will anchor four of the show’s installments , emphasized that he “had less to do with (‘Turning Point’) than anybody else.” Jennings did, however, come to the show’s defense, asking reporters to “name one news organization that would keep Manson for week three.”

Subject-wise reporting

Jennings’ planned “Turning Point” contributions are in keeping, subject-wise, with his “Peter Jennings Reporting” series, which has included installments on Bosnia and the Gulf War. His first entry will be a two-hour “Turning Point” special focusing on the 50th anniversary of D-Day and will air June 1.

Alongside his new “Turning Point” duties, Jennings has been hammering away at his latest “Peter Jennings Reporting” special, a follow-up to last year’s Bosnia documentary, tentatively scheduled to air March 17. Jennings has a deal with ABC for six such primetime news specials a year, to be produced by his own reporting unit.

On March 19, just two days after his news special on Bosnia, Jennings is set to go on-air with President Clinton on Saturday morning with a follow-up special to last February’s “President Clinton: Answering Children’s Questions.”

Also in the works at ABC News are plans to originate “World News Tonight” from South Africa during the week of national elections there. “Nightline” is considering a trip to South Africa or the Middle East.

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