NEW YORK — In the wake of tragedy and in the face of declining ratings, ABC News ran to a trusted standby: Charlie Gibson.
Gibson was named sole anchor of “World News Tonight” on Tuesday, months after the network passed over the 63-year-old “Good Morning America” co-anchor in favor of a younger generation represented by Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff.
That pair was appointed in November to head up an ambitious next-generation broadcast that included a live West Coast feed, a Webcast and a travel schedule that would put either Woodruff or Vargas on the road much of the time.
But most of that plan was shelved indefinitely when Woodruff was wounded in a near-fatal January bomb attack in Iraq, leaving Vargas as sole anchor. Then Vargas, 43, announced she was pregnant and would take maternity leave in late summer.
“I believed in the two-anchor strategy if we had the right people,” said ABC News president David Westin. “It was the right idea, but even a great strategy has to take account of reality.”
In the meantime, Westin watched with increasing alarm as the once-solid second-place broadcast lost nearly a million viewers since the death of Peter Jennings in August.
Net said it was Vargas who made the decision to leave. In a statement, she said she wants to decrease her workload to take care of her newborn and young son.
She will return as anchor of “20/20” and primetime specials.
“This broadcast needs someone who can give 150% — day in and day out,” she said. “I am not in a position to do that right now, and it wouldn’t be fair to do any less.”
When Woodruff returns, he will most likely resume as a correspondent.
Two weeks ago, CBS’ “Evening News” edged “World News Tonight” by 210,000 total viewers — the first time it’s moved out of third place in five years. ABC re-established its lead by 510,000 viewers last week, and ABC execs called the weeklong dip an “anomaly.”
“This is a much longer-term decision than what happens in any given week,” Westin said.
By naming Gibson, the network risks its “Good Morning America” franchise, which came within 50,000 viewers of NBC’s “Today” last spring, in order to put behind it a very difficult chapter that began with Jennings’ cancer diagnosis 14 months ago.
“It’s been emotionally difficult for everybody,” said former ABC correspondent Linda Douglass, who left the net in December. “I would have voted for Charlie initially; I think he’s one of the best, if not the best, of all the people who have anchored network broadcasts, and I’ve worked for many of them.”
Gibson’s departure leaves “GMA” in the hands of co-anchors Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts as it girds to face Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira on NBC’s “Today Show” in the fall.
Westin said the show would start looking at male talent to take the newsreader position on “GMA” over the next three months. When Gibson and Sawyer subbed for Woodruff, the net increasingly shifted the workload to Bill Weir and Kate Snow.
The show lost weatherman Tony Perkins to Fox last year.
“I’m sure they will cast a wide net, considering it’s a very small playing field in terms of people who can fill positions on those shows,” said Lisa Sharkey, the former “GMA” senior producer who’s now president of Al Roker Prods.
Move gives “World News Tonight” three months to rebrand before September, when Katie Couric starts as anchor of CBS’ “Evening News.”
News analyst Andrew Tyndall noted that Vargas had brought her sensibility to the broadcast, including more minutes devoted to women and family issues than CBS and NBC combined.
“This decision represents a smack in the face to the millions of female viewers of childbearing age — the desirable 25-54 demographic — that ABC News has been courting,” he said.
Vargas’ departure gives CBS a competitive angle in that it can now market Couric as the first woman to assume the evening news anchor’s chair on a permanent basis.
ABC had just begun a massive promotional effort behind Woodruff and Vargas that had to be recalled when Woodruff was wounded.
Competitively, the NBC newscast, with 8.5 million viewers last week, is in the lead, followed by those of ABC (7.7 million) and CBS (7.2 million).
Both ABC and NBC have lost viewers this season, while CBS has gained a few with Bob Schieffer at the helm.
“We know there has been some sampling for some time since Dan (Rather), Tom (Brokaw) and Peter (Jennings) left the air, and we expect that to continue,” said “WNT” exec producer Jon Banner.
Former ABC News exec Richard Wald believes the level of competition will benefit viewers.
“This is going to be one hell of a fall, I hope with a good outcome for viewers, because this is a very heavyweight group,” he said.