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ABC Selects Younger Team of Vargas, Woodruff As Evening News Anchors

By Jacques Steinberg 
and Bill Carter
THE NEW YORK TIMES

ABC News on Monday named Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff to succeed the late Peter Jennings as anchors of “World News Tonight,” but only after the network failed to reach agreement with one of its biggest stars, Charles Gibson of “Good Morning America.”

The announcement by ABC that it was entrusting its flagship evening news program to a younger generation — Woodruff and Vargas are both under 45 — was the public culmination of a backstage drama, with months of negotiations between David Westin, the president of ABC News, and Gibson unraveling last week, Gibson said in an interview.

“They ended because we couldn’t agree on timing and tenure,” Gibson said Monday. “Last week, we simply agreed to disagree.”

Gibson would not comment on the specific points of contention. But a person involved in the negotiations — who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to alienate any of the parties — said that Gibson had wanted to serve as anchor through the 2008 presidential election; Westin was offering a tenure short of that — two years — with Vargas and Woodruff to take over at that point. A senior ABC official confirmed this account.

From a business perspective, keeping Gibson, 62, in his present job, alongside Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts, would seem to make sense. “Good Morning America” is a huge source of advertising revenue — not only for ABC but for its parent company, Disney — and it is fighting to catch up to the long-time morning ratings leader, NBC’s “Today.” Gibson’s contract with “Good Morning America” is believed to run until summer 2007.

Still, with Sawyer said to be uninterested in the evening news job, and with Ted Koppel retiring last month, Gibson was perhaps the only journalist on the ABC staff whose star power and gravitas could have approached that of the so-called Big 3 network news anchors — Jennings, Tom Brokaw of NBC and Dan Rather of CBS — each of whom was still occupying his anchor chair as recently as 13 months ago. Vargas is a co-host of “20/20” and Woodruff is an anchor of ABC’s weekend news broadcasts and a correspondent.

In choosing to invest in the future, ABC appears to be acknowledging that the network news landscape has changed mightily in the last year, in terms of talent rosters and technology used for delivering the news to consumers. Vargas and Woodruff, for example, will have as their principal rival a contemporary — Brian Williams, 46, who succeeded Brokaw as the anchor of “NBC Nightly News” on Dec. 2, 2004. Like Williams, they will be charged with reversing the steady erosion of network news viewers to cable television and the Internet, or away from news entirely.

Meanwhile, it is unclear who will be the ABC team’s competition on CBS, which is interested in making an aggressive play for Katie Couric, perhaps the biggest star in network news. Couric’s contract as co-host of “Today” expires in May, and if she moved to the evening news, she could pull viewers away from both NBC and ABC.