Give It to Gibson

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A week after Peter Jennings’ death, ABC’s flagship newscast changed its name from World News Tonight With Peter Jennings to simply World News Tonight. In an e-mail to staffers announcing the move, ABC News President David Westin noted that “of all people, Peter insisted on accuracy.” Then Westin added that “the unrelenting standards, the demanding focus on broadcasting the news from around the world, and an unwavering commitment to fairness that were the hallmarks of Peter’s career remain the core values of World News Tonight.”

Given those criteria, it’s obvious whom Westin should choose as Jennings’ successor: Charlie Gibson. Since April, when Jennings’ bout with lung cancer became public, Gibson has been rotating with Elizabeth Vargas as anchor of the evening newscast, as well as continuing his co-hosting work on Good Morning America. Meanwhile, the network, out of respect to Jennings and his family—and rightly not wanting to appear insensitive—has been extremely circumspect about who will ultimately get the nod as his permanent replacement on World News Tonight.

Inevitably, that hesitation has fueled a guessing game. Beyond speculation about Gibson and Vargas, other names in the mix include Gibson’s GMA co-host Diane Sawyer and reporter Bob Woodruff, who has occasionally pinch-hit as an anchor at World News and GMA. (Woodruff has also provided riveting reports in recent months on the tsunami and from North Korea.)

But on many fronts, from his amazing range as a reporter to his live-interviewing chops—maybe the best in the business—Gibson is the clear choice for World News Tonight. Just as Jennings was, Gibson should be the face of the news division, whether that means bringing us news of disaster or making sense of the morass of information on Election Night.

Of course, any choice made by Westin and company bears potential fallout. Gibson’s exit from GMA—a huge cash cow for the network—would risk forfeiting the gains the show has made, after years of rebuilding, to challenge the No. 1 status of NBC’s Today. But Sawyer and GMA’s third co-host, Robin Roberts, have proved a comfortable team when Gibson is absent, and I doubt his departure would stall GMA’s momentum much. One idea that has been bandied about: rotating Gibson and Sawyer between World News and GMA. But that move seems less likely to keep both franchises strong than to weaken them by blurring their identities.

The ABC powers-that-be and the bosses up the food chain at Disney are wondering about the economic ramifications of whatever decision is made. They might reason that putting the 42-year-old Vargas or the 43-year-old Woodruff in the World News chair would keep GMA intact and competitive with NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams, who at 46 is part of the same demo. ABC also has to keep in mind that whoever gets passed over is likely to find Dan Rather’s vacated chair at CBS Evening News quite interesting. Woodruff’s contract has less than a year to run, and he has his fans inside CBS. As for Vargas, in a fawning New York Observer profile last December, she made it clear she thinks it is time a woman permanently took the helm of a nightly newscast.

But the idea that anyone in this good-looking, reasonably competent crew of fortysomethings brings a much younger crowd to watch these traditionally older-skewing newscasts is specious. When the 62-year-old Gibson is at World News, his 25-54 audience is neck-and-neck with Williams’. The fact is, Gibson is the best person to maintain what Westin called “the core values” of the network’s blue-chip newscast. Wait a respectful amount of time, Mr. Westin. Then rename it World News Tonight With Charles Gibson.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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