Jennings' illness sets ABC back

It was supposed to be a big year for Peter Jennings.

His two longtime competitors, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, stepped down in the course of four months, leaving him the last of the fabled troika in the chair.

At 66, he was an elder statesman with the experience and gravitas to take the news lead and enough miles left to keep it.

Jennings, after all, had been there before. Jennings took the lead during the 1989-90 TV season after stellar coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall and kept it until 1995-96 when NBC’s primetime juggernaut kicked in.

Backed by a resurgent primetime, ABC execs and many analysts assumed Jennings would win the mantle back and go out on top.

But that all unraveled last week when Jennings announced he would undergo chemotherapy for lung cancer.

He’d been sidelined in December with an upper respiratory infection when the tsunami struck Southeast Asia. He made the trip to Baghdad to cover the historic elections, but didn’t travel to Rome to cover the death and funeral of the pope.

It was most unusual for a network anchor — more so for Jennings, who made his name as a globetrotting foreign correspondent before taking the helm of “World News Tonight” in 1983.

With the diagnosis, ABC goes from having the most stable news operation in the business to one with a succession issue.

Like CBS when Dan Rather announced he would step down earlier than planned, “World News Tonight” has no obvious successor.

Also like CBS, ABC has no cable outlet at which to groom a cadre of capable anchors-in-waiting. The network’s nascent ABC News Now may yet be the next generation 24/7 news product News prexy David Westin says it is, but it comes too late to build the kind of brand NBC spent a decade building around Brian Williams at MSNBC.

“Broadcast news is a declining entity and the networks made all the investments in talent and name recognition many years ago,” observes broadcast analyst Andrew Tyndall.

On the heels of what Jennings had called a “surprise” diagnosis, even to him, ABC execs had a couple of substitutes in their hip pocket.

“20/20” co-host Elizabeth Vargas, who replaced Jennings on the day of his announcement, may not have the gravitas to to hold the anchor’s chair at age 42.

Charlie Gibson, another stand-in named by Westin, has the intelligence and presence for the job, but at 62, he hardly represents generational change.

A permanent move to “WNT” would hobble “Good Morning America” just as it’s making a run at NBC’s “Today” show. Gibson apparently has no intention of leaving the latter: He will simply do both shows on days he subs for Jennings.

Depending on the severity of his condition, and the extent to which he shares his battle with viewers, Jennings could even see the ratings bump that puts him over Williams.

Overnight ratings for Jennings’ announcement, which had been publicized on cable and the web for much of the day, were 7.1 rating/14 share compared to 6.3/12 for NBC and 4.6/9 for CBS. Those numbers are heavily influenced by the top 10 media markets where, due to strong affils, ABC typically performs well.

ABC pulled within 60,000 viewers of NBC during February sweeps, and the net occasionally scores a weekly win in the 25-54 demographic, making the race seem, at times, tantalizingly close.

But if Jennings proves unable to continue, that lead could become unassailable, and disarray could prove an opportunity for CBS, which is expected to unveil its “Evening News” remake in June.

Meanwhile the potential departure takes another legend from the network news scene. Rather and Brokaw are gone. And by the end of the year the Alphabet will have said goodbye to Ted Koppel and Barbara Walters.

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