Diane Sawyer will replace ABC anchor

Diane Sawyer’s promotion to the anchor chair at ABC’s “World News” promises to heighten the competitive fervor among the Big Three newscasts early next year, and it opens up a free-for-all for potential Sawyer successors on “Good Morning America.”

ABC News woke up the TV biz on an otherwise sleepy end-of-summer Wednesday with the news that Charles Gibson will step down as anchor of ABC News’ flagship nightly broadcast at year’s end, to be succeeded in January by Sawyer.

Sawyer has been co-anchor of “Good Morning America” since 1999. Industry insiders predict there will be a slew of contenders vying for the plum morning show gig — particularly because there doesn’t appear to be a clear heir apparent within the ABC News ranks to join the core team of co-anchor Robin Roberts, news anchor Chris Cuomo and weathercaster Sam Champion.

Gibson, who has anchored “World News” since May 2006, had been expected to retire in the not-so-distant future, though the timing of Wednesday’s announcement caught most in the biz by surprise. The ABC News vet has significant time to go on his existing contract, but he’d been discussing his exit plan with ABC News prexy David Westin for the past few weeks. He informed his boss of his decision early last week.

Westin told ABC News staffers that once Gibson’s mind was made up, Sawyer was the only candidate he considered for the post.

“Diane Sawyer is the right person to succeed Charlie and build on what he has accomplished,” Westin said.

On Gibson’s watch, “World News” has remained a competitive No. 2 in the ratings to “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.” In the current season, “World News” has averaged 7.8 million viewers to NBC’s 8.6 million. CBS’ “Evening News With Katie Couric” trails with 6.1 million.

With Sawyer’s appointment, two of the Big Three nightly news anchors will soon be femmes. CBS’ Couric became the first solo female anchor on a Big Three newscast in September 2006 (Barbara Walters and Connie Chung logged stints as co-anchors in the mid-1970s and early ’90s, respectively).

But Couric’s presence and the preponderance of femme anchors and correspondents in local and cable news has made the gender factor largely a nonstory in Sawyer’s case, according to Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard U.

For ABC, Sawyer was “the completely obvious choice,” Jones said. “The point is not that a woman has been given this post but that Diane Sawyer has been given this post. Now the question is how will Diane do against Katie Couric and Brian Williams.”

Although the Big Three’s evening newscasts are often perceived as dinosaurs in an era of 24/7 instantaneous news, the broadcasts collectively still average more than 20 million viewers a night, dwarfing the aud for any cable news program.

The role of the TV news anchor may have changed markedly since Walter Cronkite’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, but there is no question that “these three anchor positions are among the most prestigious assignments in all of American journalism,” Jones said. “The aggregate audience for evening news on the networks is the biggest audience there is for news.”

Sawyer, who has often subbed for Gibson as anchor of “World News,” comes to the job with a long and varied resume of covering breaking news, delivering in-depth and investigative reports and having the dexterity demanded in the ayem show grind. The Kentucky native, who is married to helmer Mike Nichols, joined ABC in 1989 as co-anchor of newsmag “Primetime.”

Before that she spent nine years with CBS News, becoming the first femme correspondent for “60 Minutes,” among other assignments. Earlier in her career she worked in politics, serving on the Nixon-Ford transition team in 1974. She assisted former President Nixon in penning a memoir in 1974-75.

Gibson has held a range of posts since he joined ABC News in 1975. He became best known as the co-anchor of “Good Morning America” from 1987-98. He returned to the show in tandem with Sawyer in 1999 after a 1998 revamp of the “GMA” team quickly flamed out.

Gibson was called up for “World News” duty after a tumultuous period at ABC News following the death of longtime anchor Peter Jennings in August 2005. Jennings was briefly succeeded by Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, but that pairing struggled in the ratings with the format that called for them to serve as anchor-correspondents from different locations.

In January 2006, Woodruff was severely injured by a roadside bomb while reporting in Iraq. Gibson and Sawyer wound up co-anchoring “World News” for a short time until Gibson settled into the permanent gig.

In a memo to ABC News staffers, Gibson said he’d initially planned to retire from “Good Morning America” in 2007 before Jennings’ death and the turmoil at “World News.”

“The program is now operating at a very accelerated, but steady, cruising speed, and I think it is an opportune time for a transition — both for the broadcast and for me,” Gibson wrote.

Sawyer, meanwhile, called it an “enormous honor” to be tapped as Gibson’s successor.

The Shorenstein Center’s Jones said that while Sawyer is a well-known commodity to ABC News viewers, any time there’s an anchor shuffle there’s an opening for a change in the Big Three’s competitive dynamic.

“Charlie Gibson had a very loyal and devoted audience,” Jones said. “Just like with any anchor, that audience is now going to be up for grabs. Diane Sawyer may lose some Charlie (viewers), but she may gain some from Brian and Katie. I think it’ll be a race.”

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