Diane Sawyer follows quickly on the heels of Charles Gibson's retirement to launch a new era as anchor of ABC News' flagship evening newscast on Monday.
Women now hold two of the three top jobs on what have always been considered the most prestigious newscasts on broadcast TV. Three years ago, CBS' Katie Couric became the first woman to hold the job by herself.
ABC has deliberately downplayed the transition on "World News." The show's top producer promised minor changes to accompany Sawyer, including the show's first update of on-air graphics in five years and a greater concentration on chat with correspondents to go with Sawyer's more conversational style.
"The best job I can do is to produce a broadcast around the strengths of our anchor," said Jon Banner, "World News" executive director.
A veteran TV newscaster with a stint on CBS' "60 Minutes" in her background, Sawyer has co-anchored ABC's "Good Morning America" for the past decade. Her 64th birthday is Tuesday.
"World News" is a solid No. 2 in the evening news ratings. NBC's top-rated "Nightly News" with Brian Williams has been consolidating its strength, winning 60 of the past 61 weeks. NBC had its biggest advantage during the November ratings "sweeps" since 2005, according to the Nielsen Co.
Evening news viewership habits tend to be steady, except in times of transition. Viewers unfamiliar with ABC may tune in to check how Sawyer is doing — just as they did with Couric in 2006 — yet Gibson fans may be more inclined to surf around, too.
This period of churn is more important to third-placed CBS, and the "CBS Evening News" is preparing to take a strong run at ABC. But if Couric doesn't get more people to see whether CBS is fulfilling its promise of offering a more serious, hard-hitting broadcast, viewers may see those claims as just talk, said Andrew Tyndall, a news consultant who studies the content of network newscasts.
At ABC, Banner has been through his share of anchor transitions, caused by the death of Peter Jennings and the serious wounding of Bob Woodruff in a bomb blast. The veteran Gibson had been on duty since 2006.
"Any transition is difficult on an audience," Banner said. "We have had more than our fair share. Thankfully, this one we have been able to do some planning around."
ABC News President David Westin said the transition to Sawyer has been kept deliberately low-key. She hasn't been giving interviews, her new role hasn't been promoted outside of the network and she's starting on a holiday week where many viewers are preoccupied.
"In the end, this is not about the first day, and it is not about us," Westin wrote in a memo to his staff late last week. "Our focus must be and remain on the audience and what matters to the people we serve every day. If we show a steadfast devotion to serving that audience, all our programs will be successful over the long-term."
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