ABC revealed Westin’s departure late on Labor Day, traditionally a time to bury tough news. Westin, who will remain at the network through the end of the year, leaves just months after ABC News was forced to engineer a brutal downsizing. That led to the departure of between 350 to 400 staffers this spring (a fourth of its workforce).
Disney-ABC chief Anne Sweeney lauded Westin for being “a tireless advocate for ABC News, effectively guiding the group through some of the most seismic industry, and divisional, changes imaginable.” Sweeney added that a replacement would be named shortly.
Westin, meanwhile, said the timing was right for him.
“Over the last nine months, we’ve put in place new anchors on all of our programs,” he said. “At the same time, we went through a very difficult transformation made necessary by changes in our business and its economics.”
Westin’s exit comes as many continue to speculate whether ABC can still field an independent news division. The same question hovers over CBS’ news division as well — and both ABC and CBS have been rumored to be in talks about merging with various entities over the years, such as CNN and Bloomberg. The Alphabet actually came close to forging such a pact with CNN in 2002, while the Bloomberg rumors have popped up more recently. But the logistics of pulling off such a move have so far been too complicated to pull off.
Westin was a surprise choice to take over ABC News back in 1997, having previously served as ABC TV Network president. A former lawyer, Westin had been interested in the ABC News post for years, and was eventually groomed to replace the legendary ABC News boss Roone Arledge.
Westin inherited the ABC News division just as the world of TV news underwent a paradigm shift. Budget woes forced Westin to make massive cuts over the years; Westin was also forced to put several succession plans in place as ABC News’ stable of stars slowly retired or passed away. In many cases, Westin struggled to maintain the prominence that stars like Peter Jennings, David Brinkley and Ted Koppel once commanded at the network. ABC’s signature “World News” and “Good Morning America” shows, both of which recently underwent anchor shifts, remain stuck in second place and don’t appear to be much of a threat to leader NBC.
Westin also found himself competing against the rising influence and ratings prowess of cable news, and battling network execs internally who were sometimes less interested in making room for news fare.
That became readily apparent in 2002, when ABC Entertainment looked to lure away David Letterman by promising the “Nightline” spot. Westin steadfastly supported “Nightline” and eventually won a commitment to keep the newsmag on the air. It paid off for ABC: “Nightline” is once again a solid competitor at 11:35 p.m.
Here’s a memo from Disney/ABC topper Anne Sweeney about Westin’s exit:
For the past 13 years, David proved himself a tireless advocate for ABC News, effectively guiding the group through some of the most seismic industry, and divisional, changes imaginable. During that time, he helped reinvent our News organization, and positioned us for great success going forward. While it will be sad to see David leave, his desire to pursue other professional endeavors is understandable, and commendable, and I know you’ll join me in wishing him nothing but the best. I’ll be announcing a new leader for ABC News in the near future.
And here’s Westin’s letter to staffers:
A month ago I told Bob Iger and Anne Sweeney that the time has come for me to step down as President of ABC News. Leading you has been a great privilege and a solemn responsibility — a responsibility that I tried to fulfill for over thirteen years by doing what I believed was best for this important news organization. I will root for your continued success long after I am gone.
I’ve always admired those few who know when it’s time to move on. This is the right time for me. Over the last nine months, we’ve put in place new anchors on all of our programs. At the same time, we went through a very difficult transformation made necessary by changes in our business and its economics. I am confident ABC News is better positioned for the future than it has been at any time since I came here in March of 1997.
As rewarding as I’ve found my time here, there are some other things I want to do professionally — things that I cannot explore while fulfilling my responsibilities here. I’m announcing my decision now so that I can pursue those possibilities, something I couldn’t do in fairness to all of you until I’d told you of my plans to step down. I have agreed to remain your leader through the end of the year to ensure that Anne has the time she needs to find the right successor and that there is an orderly transition. So, I’m not going anywhere for the time being. I will need your support during this interim period to make sure that we continue to move forward.
I have only the highest regard for the company of which we are a part, for its leadership, and – most important – for all of you. I am grateful for your letting me be part of this great organization for so long.
MORE WESTIN and ABC NEWS:
Amanpour to anchor ABC’s ‘This Week’ (3/18/10)
ABC News to cut 300 staffers (2/23/10)
Stephanopolous to join ‘GMA’ (12/10/09)
Disney-ABC to cut 400 jobs (1/29/09)
ABC News cutting 35 jobs (6/22/07)
Gibson will replace desk set at ABC (5/23/06)
‘Night’ moves (10/17/05)
Koppel done with Alphabet (3/31/05)
Will CNN, ABC tie knot? (11/17/02)
Has ABC pulled a stupid Dave trick? (3/3/02)
ABC’s Westin mauled in mag (8/7/00)
ABC trims hard news staff by 10% (4/9/99)
Westin destined for news (3/6/97)