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Arledge hands ABC News reins to Westin

ABC News chairman Roone Arledge said Friday that he’s handing over the day-to-day management of the division he’s run since 1977 to David Westin, who was named ABC News president in March 1997.

The move was expected. Westin said the timing of Arledge handing over the reins to ABC News was in accordance with an internal plan that ABC previously would not confirm publicly (Daily Variety, April 6).

Arledge, 66, will keep his title as chairman, and Westin said that Arledge will remain “active” in the news division. On Friday, Arledge was named senior VP of ABC Inc. In this capacity, he will report to ABC Inc. president Robert Iger and work on unspecified “company-wide programming activities and new endeavors.”

Since Arledge was given the title of chairman last March and Westin was named ABC News president, ABC has been saying that Westin would succeed Arledge.

Westin, 45, inherits ABC News at a difficult time. After years as the number one rated evening newscast ABC’s “World News Tonight” usually ranks number two or three in a tight three-way news race. In addition, ABC’s morning show “Good Morning America” lags far behind NBC’s “Today.”

The network, which is under pressure to reduce costs, is also planning to cancel the Sunday “GMA” and ABC’s overnight newscast, said sources.

Westin’s appointment to ABC News president was a surprise because he had no previous journalism experience. Westin joined ABC as a lawyer and rose to president of the ABC Network.

“The 15 months of transition has been very good; I’ve learned from Roone,” said Westin. “I feel I have a very good reputation with the journalists here and I think we have a mutual respect.”

Several sources close to ABC News said that Arledge has resisted stepping down.

“Roone revolutionized the way all television news is done in the United States,” said Westin. “Someone like that must have some regret as he sets upon a passage. Considering that, he’s been very gracious.”

Westin said his first move as head of ABC News will be to hire Shelby Coffey, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, to a senior management position. The appointment will come this week, said Westin. He added that he will also restructure his management team, but declined to comment further.

“My summer’s going to be spent getting a management team put together and working more broadly with the leadership of the news division,” said Westin.

Westin said he’s been involved in merging “Primetime Live” into “20/20” and he’ll continue to work on this transition. Westin added that ABC News, which decided not to launch a 24-hour cable news channel, will increase its production of news programming for other cable outlets. ABC News produces a regular newscast for Discovery Channel as well as creating non-fiction programming for A&E and Lifetime, in both of which ABC owns an equity stake.

“We can reach more people that way than through a modestly rated 24-hour news channel,” said Westin.

Arledge, who has not set any retirement date, was appointed ABC News president in 1977 after heading the network’s sports division.

His many credits include hiring David Brinkley to host a Sunday morning news program, creating “Nightline,” launching the newsmagazines “20/20” and “PrimeTime Live” and making Peter Jennings anchor of “World News Tonight,” a move that catapulted the newscast to number one in ratings for almost a decade.

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