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ABC bumps Arledge upstairs to new chairman post

NEW YORK — ABC Network prexy David Westin will succeed Roone Arledge as president of ABC News in a major management shift at the network.

Arledge, 65, the legendary former ABC Sports exec who has run the news division for the past 20 years, is being bumped up to the new post of chairman in preparation for his eventual retirement, but said he’ll retain active day-to-day management of the division and act as “CEO” in a “partnership” with Westin.

Arledge’s move had been rumored for some time, but it had been unclear who would replace him. While some were caught off guard by the appointment of Westin, sources close to ABC said he had been interested in the news post for some time.

Westin had seen his own role eroding as the network’s top entertainment and sports execs — Jamie Tarses and Steve Bornstein — began reporting to Robert Iger, ABC Inc.’s president and Westin’s own boss.

“It’s hard being responsible for the profit performance of various dayparts that technically and creatively don’t report to you,” said one senior exec at ABC’s entertainment division.

Westin, who joined ABC in 1991 as general counsel and later headed the network’s inhouse production unit, had also supervised daypart programming execs since Iger promoted him in 1994 after Iger’s own ascension. But even then, execs like Ted Harbert “always bristled” at reporting to Westin, the exec said, and Iger switched gears when ABC’s ratings began to slide in late 1995.

“The question is how interesting the job he currently has is,” said another senior network exec. The shift from a titular network head to chief of one of its operating units “seems like a downgrade, but it’s a bigger job in terms of what he can accomplish.”

Westin, a former lawyer with close Washington ties, had taken a keen interest in the news division, and stepping into the role alongside Arledge isn’t entirely out of left field.

“Roone and David have worked closely together on ABC News issues in recent years, and David was a natural choice when we began focusing on succession,” Iger said in a statement. “He can provide the leadership for the next generation of news programming.”

Recent news troubles

Although execs claimed otherwise, Arledge — while playing a key role in luring and retaining stars like Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer — may have hastened the succession issue by presiding over a newly troubled division that has seen erosion in morning and nightly-news ratings and a series of lawsuits and charges of ethical lapses.

Most recently, the division was slapped with a $5.5 million jury verdict over hidden-camera techniques in a story on the Food Lion supermarket chain, a verdict ABC is now appealing; and Walters anchored a “20/20” segment on legit producer Andrew Lloyd Webber without disclosing she’d invested $100,000 in his musical “Sunset Boulevard.”

More fundamentally, said one senior ABC exec, Westin himself became increasingly “frustrated that the news division seemed to be aging and the shows don’t look fresh and young.” Westin said he eagerly volunteered for the post when discussion focused on Arledge’s own succession plans, but said he won’t yet seek to carve out a specific niche: “We’re not going into this anticipating dividing responsibilities.”

Hierarchy switcheroo

Arledge, who had technically reported to Westin, will now oversee his former boss as chairman. But he denied needing help to fix ABC News’ perceived problems, and said criticism of the division’s performance of late has been overblown. “The only place we consider we have a real problem is ‘Good Morning America,’ ” Arledge said, confirming plans for talent and format changes to fix the lagging ayem show.

Odd man out is Paul Friedman, Arledge’s No. 2 exec, who was widely expected to succeed him, but is now in limbo. Arledge and Westin say they hope to keep him, but Friedman’s plans are uncertain, and he didn’t return calls seeking comment. Friedman also is friendly with ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, whose own contract expires in August.

The network president post, execs told staffers, will likely be downgraded further, with a new, as-yet-unnamed replacement limited to oversight of sales and marketing, broadcast operations, affiliate relations and PR functions, mirroring similar jobs at CBS and NBC. Leading internal candidates are Alex Wallau, now exec VP-network policy, and Steve Burke, an exec VP and Iger confidante, although few expect Burke to take the job. Those departments will report to Iger until Westin’s successor is named.

Other execs would be named to oversee the daytime, latenight and early-morning dayparts, which had also reported to Westin.

The Arledge news met with differing reaction from rival webs: NBC staffers were elated at the news, seeing it as validation of their own strides against ABC. But CBS execs were peeved that the changes seemed to stabilize ABC News, and believe it’s now more likely that Sawyer — a Westin fan — will remain there.

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