Tuned In

Diane Sawyer to Take Over World News, Very Quietly

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ABC has announced that Dec. 18 will be Charles Gibson’s last day anchoring World News; he’ll be replaced, as announced in September, by Diane Sawyer shortly afterward. (ABC hasn’t made an official announcement of her start date yet, but it looks to be the following week.)

Sawyer’s ascension isn’t news. What’s interesting is the timing, which is pretty much the polar opposite of the massive, spotlighted rollout CBS gave to Katie Couric. ABC could not be making Sawyer’s premiere much less conspicuous short of moving World News to 3 o’clock in the morning.

But burying Sawyer’s debut might not be a bad strategy.

Now, part of the timing was already set. Gibson said months ago he would leave by the end of the year. But ABC could have gone a couple of ways with this. It could have put an interim anchor in the chair for a little while, so as to gear up for a well-promoted relaunch of the newscast—say in January, when viewers are done with the holidays and paying attention.

Or it could do what it appears to be doing now: debuting Sawyer in one of the slowest news periods of the year, the time of year when you might normally expect an anchor to go on vacation and be replaced by fill-ins anyway.

There are any number of reasons ABC might have decided to go this route, but the most logical is that they’ve learned from CBS’s experience with Couric. That doesn’t mean that ABC is worried about their audience accepting a woman (though it’s possible they might be). But Couric’s debut, preceded a phalanx of angels bearing trumpets, raised expectations of her that she hardly could have met even if she didn’t end up in third place.

Why burden Sawyer with that? Why not, instead, act as if the switch is no big deal? (Which truthfully it’s not, given that Sawyer and Gibson, former Good Morning America co-hosts, are both well-know quantities to ABC viewers anyway.) Odds are, any new anchor will get some curiosity tune-in, but will also naturally lose some viewers initially as viewers’ habits are disrupted.

So it probably makes sense to simply deflect attention as much as possible from the short-term results of her takeover, get it behind them, and focus on the long haul, rather than encourage any more microanalysis of Sawyer’s debut ratings than they’ll already get. If Sawyer drops in the ratings while people are still clearing the Christmas wrapping, who will notice?

In the meantime, ABC still needs to pick Sawyer’s GMA replacement. George Stephanopoulos continues to be the most commonly tossed-around name, even though I don’t think it makes the most sense for his career long-term. Anybody you’d like to see getting the early-morning wake-up call?