David Muir replaced Diane Sawyer on Labor Day, which, in news circles, qualifies as a soft launch. The question now is how much his network’s rechristened “ABC World News Tonight” will tip the balance toward soft news as well.
Although Muir received a plum promotion, the announcement made clear ABC’s priorities, and that when it comes to major events George Stephanopoulos – and the newly ascendant “Good Morning America” – is No. 1 not just in the morning race but in the network’s heart. In that respect, ABC News reinforced perceptions that anchoring a nightly newscast is no longer necessarily the top-dog slot in broadcast news, especially when the morning telecasts have more time to sell, and thus put more cash in the company’s pockets.
The struggle that looms, though, is whether that scenario will lead to a further softening of “World News,” pushing the broadcast closer to “Good Evening America” territory.
Two nights in, the jury remains out, although Muir’s opening-night comment about the transition – “It is an honor to begin this journey with you” – adopted the squishy language of a reality-dating-show contestant, which doesn’t bode well.
Based on an initial sampling, those curious about a shift in direction by “World News” should pay less attention to the top of the newscast than the bottom – that stretch normally reserved for human-interest stories and something to make viewers feel less depressed before “Wheel of Fortune” comes on.
On Tuesday, for example, Muir went into the field for a serious report on Syrian child refugees, which was promptly followed by a sort-of news-you-can-use segment on how to escape a car immersed in water, an Ultrasound where the fetus appears to be flashing a “thumbs up” sign and a fuzzy piece on recovering lost family photos.
In similar fashion, Monday’s finishing kick included shark video and a very-“GMA”-like capper in which kindergarten-age kids – recruited via Twitter – talked about the first day of school.
There’s room for such stories, of course. What matters is the balance, given how ABC has thrived in the morning by trading in the grave for the giddy. That’s also how “Nightline” made the gradual turn to a program that, depending on the night and story mix, could be mistaken for “Extra” or “Access Hollywood.”
A New York Times profile cited Muir’s youth relative (he’s 40) as a point of differentiation from his evening-news rivals, and the anchor himself spoke of a departure from the “voice-of-God approach.” But that ship, frankly, sailed some time ago, and in the context of where “World News Tonight” could be heading in terms of seriousness, might potentially be his least salient attribute.
Although for those still naïve enough to care about the future and direction of TV news, let’s hope not.