Beutel and beyond

WABC delicately preps for the inevitable

NEW YORK – WABC is getting ready for life after Bill Beutel.

The veteran anchor hasn’t announced any plans to retire from the news biz — or even reduce his role as the lead 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. anchor for the ABC flagship. And if WABC execs have their way, the rock-solid Beutel, 67, will remain a cornerstone of the station’s on-air product well into the next century.

Still, Gotham news observers say several recent moves at WABC indicate the station has quietly started the delicate process of grooming a successor for Beutel.

The latest evidence to support that theory came last week with the announcement that ABC News correspondent Bill Ritter will join WABC as a weekend co-anchor on Saturday. The “20/20” and “Good Morning America” contributor will team up with the recently recruited Sandra Bookman, allowing longtime weekend helmer Sarah Wallace to move back into the field and head up a new investigative unit for the station.

More importantly, the Saturday/Sunday shakeup lets WABC develop Ritter as a main anchor talent, giving the station a possible heir apparent to Beutel. Also being eyed as a potential replacement: Robb Hanrahan, anchor of the station’s early-morning and 5 p.m. newscasts.

Hanrahan was promoted to the early evening news last year following the departure of longtime 5 p.m. anchor Greg Hurst, who had been viewed as an eventual successor to Beutel.

With Hurst gone, WABC officials are smart to start grooming Ritter and Hanrahan for bigger things, industry insiders say.

“Part of what you have to do (as a news executive) is protect your past while investing in your future,” says a top exec at a rival Gotham station, who believes the way WABC handles the transition from Beutel to another anchor will greatly impact the station’s long- term health.

“How they replace him will dictate how they do (in the ratings) for years,” the exec says.

As a classic example of how to bungle a changing of the guard in the anchor ranks, observers point to WCBS’ abrupt demotion of local news legend Jim Jensen earlier this decade. After more than 20 years with the station, Jensen was first demoted to host of the station’s Sunday-morning public affairs show and later forced out completely.

“They left him on too long, and then when they replaced him, it was not done very gracefully,” remembers one veteran local news wag. “You could make the argument that (WCBS) still hasn’t recovered.”

WABC execs are being far more cautious about Beutel’s future, refusing to talk — either on or off the record — about who might replace the local news legend when he does decide to leave. The reason: Nobody at the station wants to give Beutel even the subtle impression that he’s being eased out.

There’s also a school of thought that says WABC’s staffing changes are simply a matter of a strong news station trying to make itself stronger. “You want to have as many good anchor teams as possible,” notes one veteran talent agent.

According to the agent, smart stations use their morning, weekend and early evening newscasts to develop solid backup anchors. He points to WNBC as an example, noting the station has shaken up its morning and weekend anchor teams several times in the past few years as it attempts to develop the next Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons.

Beutel agrees, saying WABC needs a solid anchor bench. “Any TV news operation has to create as much depth as possible,” he told Daily Variety.

As for his own future, Beutel says he has no intention of getting out of the local news business.

“I have not given any serious thought to retiring,” he states flatly. “I hope to be doing this for several years to come.”