In another sign of the deep, lightning-fast changes sweeping the news media, ABC today took the radical step of naming an old white man as sole anchor of World News Tonight. Charles Gibson–originally floated as a likely successor to Peter Jennings when Jennings died last year–got the job he was passed over for in December, when ABC named the fortysomething team of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff instead. (Reportedly, Gibson, who takes over next week, would have had the job then if not for a dispute over the length of his contract.)
One ill-fated Iraq trip later, Woodruff is on indefinite medical leave, and Vargas has been passed in the ratings by genial codger Bob Schieffer, currently keeping Katie Couric’s seat warm at CBS. Apparently ABC decided to return to Plan A, removing an anchor from the money-generating Good Morning America to stanch the bleeding and get ready for Hurricane Katie.
ABC is using the fig leaf of Vargas’ pregnancy and upcoming maternity leave to push her out–she’ll return later to work on 20/20–which provides a corrective to all those women-in-the-workplace stories we’re sure to see when Katie Couric takes over at CBS in the fall. You’ve come a long way, baby! Or not.
Of course, network TV is a numbers businessâ€”it’s ultimately ratings, not chromosomes, that cost Vargas the job, and Gibson is an undeniably qualified journalist. (Then again, so is his passed-over GMA cohost Diane Sawyer.) But his selection also seems like a bet that news viewers are not, after all, ready for the kind of change that CBS hopes they are; ABC is hoping to succeed with its own Schieffer strategy, putting a familiar, likeable patriarch in place to counterprogram Couric. And by not naming a replacement to cohost GMA with Sawyer, ABC only underscores the girl-news-vs.-boy-news dichotomy that morning and evening news shows have fallen into.
ABC may have made a sharp tactical move, even if Gibson doesn’t turn them around dramatically. But it’s also ironic that ABC would essentially use a maternity leave to demote the only woman evening anchor on network TV, considering that just last week, in its upfront presentation to advertisers, ABC went out of its way to salute the female viewers who pulled it out of the ratings toilet by making hits of Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives. Something tells me Lynette Scavo wouldn’t roll over for this.