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Alphabet casts anchors

Vargas, Woodruff to replace Jennings on 'WNT'

ABC News named anchors Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff as permanent replacements for the late Peter Jennings on “World News Tonight.”

The appointments end four months of uncertainty that began in May when Jennings announced he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in August.

“Good Morning America” co-anchor Charles Gibson, who was reporting from Rome on the papal transition when Jennings announced his illness, immediately filled in and then alternated nights with Vargas, 43, and then Woodruff, 44.

The network delayed any talk of a permanent future for the No. 2-rated evening newscast to allow the staff time to mourn Jennings. Ratings held steady, which gave the network the flexibility to consider its options.

“The loss of Peter was devastating. At the same time it was clear to all of us working on the question that it was time for the evening news to be addressed anew,” ABC News prexy David Westin said.

The network decided to go with Vargas and Woodruff rather than Gibson, ABC execs said, in order to build the franchise around two anchors who have the potential to helm the show for decades to come.

“Clearly, this is a decision for the next 20 years,” said executive producer Jon Banner.

But the job of “World News Tonight” anchor is about to get a lot more demanding.

Starting in January, ABC will air three separate, live versions of the newscast, including a West Coast edition at 9:30 EST that in many cases will be clearly differentiated from those targeted at Eastern and Mountain time zones.

“Our audience on the West Coast has had to put up with decades of stale news, and we intend to change that,” Banner said.

All three networks have the capacity to update segments for fast-moving stories for the West Coast, but none has tried to air a live version for the West, due to the cost and wear and tear on the talent.

Banner said the late version of the newscast will be different from the earlier versions, changed by events as they happen or by swapping in stories with more West Coast relevance, such as wildfires, earthquakes or California politics.

The move means Vargas and Woodruff will be working until 10 p.m. each night, a factor that played into the decision to go with two anchors rather than one.

“That led us to the conclusion that it was simply too big a job for one person to do, that to have a single anchor didn’t make sense,” Westin said.

The live West Coast edition could have an immediate impact in the L.A. market, where KABC-TV airs a recorded version of “World News Tonight” at 6:30. That broadcast could immediately be swapped out for the live version.

Around the West, different markets air the news at different times. In San Francisco, KGO-TV airs the news at 5:30 p.m. and could immediately start airing the live second edition at 8:30 EST.

In markets where the news airs at 6 p.m., such as Seattle, Portland and San Diego, affiliates will have the choice of airing a recording of the latest version of “World News Tonight” or switching timeslots to get the live feed.

“This has the potential to draw audiences if it’s a discernibly different newscast to the viewer,” said Katz Television vice president Bill Carroll. “Is there added value to watching that over Brian Williams, Bob Schieffer or Katie Couric?”

Couric is Leslie Moonves’ dream candidate to take over the “CBS Evening News,” a move that would put all three network newscasts in the hands of 40-something anchors.

Gibson, 62, will return on a full-time basis to “Good Morning America.” He had been holding down both jobs, often taking midday naps to supplement the few hours of sleep he gets between his evening and morning shifts.

Gibson made no secret of his desire to be named “World News Tonight” anchor.

“Charlie said to me, ‘I have a great job now; ‘WNT’ is a great job. I would be perfectly happy whichever way this goes.’ And he has been steadfast in that,” Westin said.

Gibson was unavailable for comment.

Vargas, a longtime substitute for Jennings, will remain a co-anchor on “20/20.” She will spend next week in Iraq to cover the country’s elections.

Woodruff began his career as a lawyer and got his first experience in journalism in 1989 when he worked for CBS News in China during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.