In his office at ABC World News With Charles Gibson, Executive Producer Jon Banner still has several bottles of Laurent-Perrier on the credenza behind his desk. The champagne was left over from the previous week, when ABC News President David Westin joined the World News staff in celebrating its February-sweeps win over the top-rated NBC—the first time in a decade that the No. 2 evening newscast has pulled ahead.
“David was nice enough to acknowledge our victory with a champagne toast,” Banner says.
NBC and CBS, meanwhile, acknowledged ABC's win in their own way: by replacing the executive producers on their evening newscasts.
For Banner, the victory is bittersweet, the coda to a period of improbable turmoil that began nearly two years ago when veteran anchor Peter Jennings was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Jennings' illness came as he and Banner had been gearing up to take on NBC Nightly News in the wake of anchor Tom Brokaw's retirement. And Jennings' death in August 2005, followed in January 2006 by the serious injury of new co-anchor Bob Woodruff by a roadside bomb in Iraq, stunned the entire news division.
Savoring the good news
But with World News finding success—and welcome stability in Charles Gibson, who will celebrate a year as anchor this May—Banner is savoring the good news for at least a moment.
“To be able to sit back for five minutes and enjoy growth and a first-place win is very gratifying,” he admits.
World News has been Banner's intermittent home over his nearly 18 years at ABC. While growing up in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., he did a two-week internship with the program in high school, when it was known as World News Tonight.
Upon graduating from Boston University in 1989 with a bachelor's in journalism, he joined full time as a desk assistant.
Banner soon headed down to Washington to be an associate producer for This Week With David Brinkley. In 1994, he joined the Atlanta bureau as a producer. After a year devoted largely to covering the U.S. intervention in Haiti, he moved to the Dallas bureau.
“Actually, the day I was moving to Dallas, the Oklahoma City bombing happened,” Banner recalls.
He spent the next several years on the road with correspondent Dean Reynolds, covering the bombing trials, the 1996 presidential campaign and various stories around the Southwest.
Working in what he calls a “story- rich” part of the country was invaluable experience, says Banner, a chance to learn “about what interests people in the rest of the country as opposed to the two coasts.”
After a stint producing news on Good Morning America back in New York, Banner returned to WNT as senior producer in 2000.
Two years later, he was named executive producer of This Week With George Stephanopoulos and spent the next year commuting to D.C. before again returning to WNT in June 2003, this time in the top slot.
Whereas Banner had spoken with Jennings only occasionally whenever the anchor called to say he liked—or didn't like—one of his stories, the two quickly developed a bond as they conspired to seize a historic moment in evening news when two of the three anchors had retired.
“It was a really special time for all of us because he was sort of the last man standing for a time,” Banner recalls. “Unfortunately, and tragically, we didn't get to enjoy that for very long.”
Likewise, Banner and Westin's decision to try a dual-anchor format after Jennings died never had a chance to succeed after Woodruff was wounded and his co-anchor, Elizabeth Vargas, went on maternity leave. “We didn't really ever find out whether it could've worked,” says Banner.
Gibson, who filled in regularly throughout the upheaval, marvels at Banner's “personal fortitude” in holding the broadcast and its staff together during a time of “Richter-scale shocks” for the network.
“In the annals of executive producers of news shows, that was something I don't think anybody's ever been called upon to do,” Gibson says. “And he did it magnificently.”
Banner is quick to credit Gibson, along with his “A-team” of correspondents and the support of Westin, with carrying the newscast through the ordeal.
“Bucking the trend”
And although he declines to speculate on the “many factors that go into whether we succeed or fail,” he proudly notes that World News is alone among the evening newscasts in showing total- viewer growth season-to-date.
“That we're able to exhibit growth week after week shows that we're bucking the trend, that the evening news isn't some dinosaur, that we're actually vital,” he says. “It's proof that we're doing the right thing.”
Although Banner's experiment with an additional live West Coast newscast last year did not last, the World News Webcast he established has fared well on ABC.com and iTunes, where viewers can download segments in chapters.
Banner enjoys spending his limited down time with his wife, Sara, a former ABC News producer, and their two daughters. But in some ways, the job is more all-consuming than ever.
“When you get close in anything, whether it's sports or evening-news races, you start working harder because you can taste it,” he says. “We know we have a ton of work to do to keep this up.”
Still, admits Banner, “there is some joy to seeing success after all this.
“There's nothing that can really justify Peter's early death,” he says. “But it's gratifying to see a lot of hard work by a lot of people through some very difficult years pay off.”