Tuned In

ABC Puts a Pretty Face (Actually, Two) on a Stagnant Business

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World News Tonight officially became World News Hot today, as ABC named Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas to be the fortysomething, experienced and, let’s face it, quite easy on the eyes anchors of its nightly newscast. The announcement was otherwise not exactly earth-shattering. Both candidates, set to take over officially Jan. 3, were considered front-runners, and ABC was long leaning toward a co-anchor arrangement. The main suspense was whether Woodruff would be named or Charles Gibson, who apparently was deemed more important in keeping Good Morning America yapping at Katie Couric’s stilettos. (Though those heels may end up walking across town to CBS when it fills its own anchor opening, which might have influenced ABC’s decision.)

Multiple anchors are not new in TV news, though in the past, as with Dan Rather and Connie Chung or Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner, they have often turned out to be transitional. (It’s also been the trepidatious way that networks have dipped their toes into letting a woman take the job.) But the duo will be doing a trebled job, broadcasting a separate, live newscast to the West Coast each evening as well as a daily Webcast. ABC is like any modern employer: when it turns over a job to a new generation, it ups the workload.

The announcement will launch yet another round of talk about how network news is dying, and vigorous responses from the networks that it’s more relevant than ever. (It’s true! We’ve got a Webcast!) Neither is really true. Network news will never be what it was, ratings-, status- or influence-wise. But it still makes money, and if you get offered the anchor job, you still take it because, well, the checks still clear.

In this sense, ABC’s safe, unsurprising announcement is appropriate. Why bring excitement to a genre whose remaining audience doesn’t seem to want it? CBS’s chief, Les Moonves, has talked about making more dramatic changes to the evening news, and he may. (Though bringing in Couric would not exactly be revolutionary.) But while he may make the evening news more interesting, even better, he’s not likely to make it more popular, because there are simply not as many people available or interested in watching a news show at 6:30 p.m. anymore, no matter how many podcasts you give them.

ABC’s decision, on the other hand, is unexciting, uninspiring and thus eminently practical. Rather than rethinking its newscast, it’s just trying to hang on to its share of an inexorably diminishing pie. The evening news will continue long, slow slide into still-profitable irrelevance. But at least at ABC, it will look good doing it.