NEW YORK — This may come as a surprise, but ABC's Charles Gibson is retiring at the end of next week and Diane Sawyer will replace him as "World News" anchor. Really.
Given ABC's stealth transition for what has been traditionally the top job in network television news, it's understandable if many viewers don't realize it's coming. Sawyer has given no interviews about her new job since the change was announced on Sept. 2, and none are planned. Neither has Gibson, although he may do some valedictory interviews before his last broadcast on Dec. 18. No advertisements are planned, outside of those on ABC.
The obvious contrast is late summer 2006, when CBS trumpeted the arrival of Katie Couric at the "CBS Evening News." And the Couric hype is exactly what's kept Sawyer under the radar. ABC officials believe the attention paid to Couric's move from the "Today" show backfired, leaving CBS a distant last in the evening news ratings. Instead of a big splash, ABC hopes for a steady swim.
Three years ago, Couric's face was everywhere, plastered on the sides of city buses and on the cover of magazines including Good Housekeeping. She kept a grueling schedule of interviews with journalists and local anchors at 48 CBS affiliates. She went to six different cities for question-and-answer sessions with viewers, a trip quickly dubbed Couric's listening tour.
It worked. People knew she was there. An estimated 13.6 million people watched the "CBS Evening News" on Couric's first night, more than double what she gets on a typical night now, according to the Nielsen Co.
The problem was that many viewers didn't like what they saw. Couric was trying to change the mold of the evening newscasts with interviews and lengthier features, and longtime TV news watchers expecting a fairly straight rundown of the day's events found it jarring. Rome Hartman, the broadcast's executive producer at the time, recalls telling people repeatedly not to place too much emphasis on that first show and give Couric a chance to work into a rhythm.
"We knew there was a danger that our beginning would be treated as our end," Hartman said. "Frankly, it was, and it was unfair."
Couric has since settled into a harder, more traditional newscast that is widely respected. Unfortunately, many viewers didn't give her a second chance.
CBS also faced some barriers that ABC doesn't. Couric was the first woman given a chance to anchor the evening news by herself, something that was a real issue for a format with so many older viewers. Couric was moving to a new network after many years at NBC; Sawyer, meanwhile, is well-known to ABC's audience. Couric dealt with questions about whether she had the "gravitas" for the job after working so long in morning TV (questions never posed to Gibson) and nobody's raising those points about Sawyer.
"Katie inoculated Diane," Hartman said.
CBS wasn't trying to go overboard with attention, but it happened. Many people requested interviews, and "we didn't want to be jerks," he said.
"We could have launched the program in an underground bunker in Siberia, and it still would have been as hot a spotlight," he said.
Couric's newscast began in September, back-to-school time and a period where people are used to looking for something new on television. Sawyer, instead, starts Christmas week, when presumably many viewers have other things on their minds. "That's the typical out-of-town tryout," said Richard Wald, a longtime television news executive and now a Columbia University professor.
Rather than trying to reconfigure the broadcast with a new producer, as Couric did, Sawyer will move neatly into the same newscast that Gibson is leaving. Her executive producer, Jon Banner, is Gibson's producer. He produced "World News" with Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff before Gibson, and the late Peter Jennings before them.
Any newscast is going to reflect the likes and dislikes of the main anchor, but making it Sawyer's broadcast will be a gradual process, said an ABC News executive familiar with the rollout who requested anonymity because plans are being kept under wraps for competitive reasons.
"The idea is that Charlie and Diane want the focus to stay on the news and not on them and their transition," the executive said. "Diane is an extremely well-known journalist who does not need to be introduced to other people."
ABC News will also have more pressing publicity needs. Sawyer's exit from "Good Morning America" means a new team must be put in place there, and the morning shows have become more important financially for the networks than the evening news. If George Stephanopoulos accepts ABC's offer to replace Sawyer, promotional muscle will be needed to make people aware of that change. ABC would also likely need a new host for the Sunday morning political show "This Week."
The quiet transition makes a lot of sense, Wald said.
"There was all sorts of money (CBS) put into promoting Katie and it wasn't terribly valuable," he said. "If you do something for reasons that don't apply to Diane and didn't work anyway, that's not a valuable use of resources."
Sawyer starts on "World News" on Dec. 21.