Emily Rooney has been fired as executive producer of “ABC World News Tonight” after a stormy seven-month reign. Her replacement is “PrimeTime Live” executive producer Rick Kaplan, who takes charge of the No. 1-rated newscast today.
Taking over from Kaplan at “PrimeTime” is Phyllis McGrady, who1will stay at the helm of the Alphabet web’s new newsmag “Turning Point,” slated to launch early this year.
The musical chairs at ABC News follow months of speculation about Rooney’s future at “World News.” Brought in last May from the Boston ABC affiliate WCVB, where she had a successful run as news director, Rooney was hand-picked by anchor Peter Jennings and Paul Friedman, who had been moved up from executive producer of “World News” to the No. 2 slot at the news division.
The daughter of “60 Minutes” pundit Andy Rooney, she was viewed by ABC News honchos as being able to improve on the newscast’s breaking news and domestic coverage, which had been criticized inside and outside the web.
Rooney had an uphill battle from the beginning, making more enemies than friends at ABC News. Entrenched network newsies, especially in the Washington bureau, resented that someone from local news had been given the slot running the news division’s flagship show. Rooney admitted her lack of experience in international news coverage. Some ABC News insiders say that “the boy’s club nature” of “World News” didn’t make it easier for Rooney, the first woman to hold the slot.
ABC News insiders say top management bungled the firing — word was already on the street before Rooney was notified. Rooney nearly got the ax two months into her tenure, but “as late as Tuesday she thought things had settled down and she was out of the woods,” according to one associate. “She didn’t see this coming.”
While “World News” continues to dominate in the ratings race, ABC News honchos were increasingly concerned about a challenge from “NBC Nightly News,” which has been making ratings gains since ABC veteran Jeff Gralnick took the reins last May. Season to date “World News” (10.6 rating/20 share) is down 3%, while “Nightly News” (9.6/19) is up 4%. “CBS Evening News” (9.3/18) is down 4%.
There had been as much speculation about Kaplan’s future as Rooney’s. The ABC News veteran has long been at odds with “PrimeTime” anchor Diane Sawyer. With Sawyer’s contract up for negotiation and CBS and ABC interested in having her toil for them, Kaplan’s days appeared numbered at the hit newsmag, where he served as executive producer since it premiered in 1989.
Kaplan did not return phone calls. According to ABC insiders, he had tired of the battles with Sawyer and wanted to return to day-to-day news. He had stints as a senior producer on “World News” and was executive producer of “Nightline” before going to “PrimeTime.”
The appointment of McGrady to assume a dual topper role at “PrimeTime” and “Turning Point” raised some eyebrows at ABC News. “How can you possibly do both jobs well? It’s more than a full-time job just to get a new show off the ground, ” a veteran ABC News producer said. “And it’s hardly a vote of confidence to all the people in No. 2 positions here that no one else is worthy of taking over ‘PrimeTime.’ ”
But ABC News number two Friedman told staffers that the dual role for McGrady was “fluid,” indicating a temporary stint at “PrimeTime.”
Meanwhile, Rooney, who still has more than two years on her contract, has yet to decide whether she will stay at ABC. “We have great respect for Emily; it simply didn’t work out,” said Liz Noyer, ABC News spokeswoman. “We hope she will take another assignment within ABC News.”
Rooney did not return calls.