ABC has chosen its successors to Peter Jennings. But the picks underscore just how much nightly network anchors have lost their clout

In selecting its co-anchors to succeed Peter Jennings at "World News Tonight," ABC has boldly acknowledged the harsh new realities of television news. The freshest news now comes from the Internet--not the evening broadcast. And, for the bottom line, those morning shows are unequivocally more important financially than the half--hour evening network reports.

That, at least, was the message underlying the Disney--owned ABC's announcement--almost 17 weeks to the day after Jennings's death--that Elizabeth Vargas, 42, and Bob Woodruff, 43, will take his place. The move will hardly stun viewers who caught the two members of ABC News' next generation of on-air talent do solo stints as Jennings's substitute in recent months. In a first for broadcast news, the two will also anchor two additional live newscasts for the West Coast, ABC also announced.

But while the news personalities grabbed top-billing in the network's formal announcement on Monday morning, it was the profound force of the Internet on media and communications that seemed to loom large in ABC's decision. The Internet is rapidly becoming the medium of choice among consumers most coveted by advertisers. In news, the rise of the medium is all the more profound as the decades--long erosion and fragmentation of the television news audiences persists. And ABC is hardly alone among the network news operations in struggling to address that reality. (Cable channels, by contrast, have been much more nimble in facing the future. Just today, CNN.com launched an on--demand, online video service featuring multiple, simultaneous live news feeds as well as access to a selection of CNN video archives and CNN International television.)

At CBS, CEO Leslie Moonves has talked of remaking the evening format. And he recently pushed out the long-time news president Andrew Heyward. Now overhauling CBS News is the top priority of Moonves's new division head, Sean McManus, who also continues as boss of CBS Sports. In what may be the most formal acknowledgement of any network of the Internet's effects on the industry, ABC said it would be making various previews of its world news broadcast available for access throughout the afternoon and night. The new anchors would host at least one advance report in a segment called "World News Now."

The network, said ABC News President David Westin, "will be making [World News] available to Americans throughout the afternoon and evening to those who want it over computers, mobile telephones, and the countless other digital means." That decision reflects the rapidly changing era of media in the digital age when audiences can have almost instant access anywhere and anytime to news, information and entertainment.

From ABC's point of view, it is merely bolstering its news operations and embracing the future. The addition of the live newscasts for the West Coast, for instance, is the first dramatic effort by a network to reach a huge part of the national television audience that generally isn't at home to catch the evening news live. Before ABC's move, the evening newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS all aired at 6:30 EST--the middle of the afternoon on the West Coast, when large segments of the potential audiences are working. Even so, a combined 25 million to 30 million viewers tune to the three rivals for all or part of the evening news broadcasts. Westin added: "Elizabeth and Bob together will be the anchors for this new broadcast and digital age of World News Tonight."

ABC's choice of Vargas and Woodruff also underscored what any student of television news has long known--the morning news shows, not the "flagship" evening news telecast, are the financial bulwark of the television news business. Vargas and Woodruff were chosen over 62-year-old Charles Gibson, who co-hosts ABC's "Good Morning America" with Diane Sawyer. According to a well-placed ABC News official, Gibson wanted the anchor post. This source and a former ABC exec said that ABC News even explored ways to have Gibson do both. Under once scenario, they said, he would have anchored the evening news and co-hosted GMA on Fridays and possibly Mondays. However, Gibson was said to have grown frustrated with the auditioning, especially on top of his GMA duties, and asked to scale back his appearance as a substitute for Jennings. As recently as last week, gossip columnists had him getting the nod as the permanent anchor of World News Tonight.

But it's not difficult to understand why ABC opted to bypass the widely-respected and well-liked news veteran. Since Westin, the news president, paired Gibson and Sawyer on GMA, ABC has come close, particularly last summer, to catching NBC's once invincible "Today Show," television's most profitable program. The notion of disbanding the Sawyer-Gibson duo evidently proved to be potentially too risky financially for a news division that is probably being kept afloat by GMA's estimated annual profits of at least $200 million a year.

The economics of morning and evening news are starkly divergent. Citing Nielsen data, broadcasting ad guru Jon Mandel of Grey Worldwide pegged total ad spending on the evening news shows at NBC, ABC and CBS at $541.9 million from October 2004 through September 2005. For the similar period 10 years ago, the total was $482.7 million. In constant dollars, the figures represent a decline in evening news ad revenues. Meanwhile, the three-hour morning news shows were flooded with $1.5 billion in advertising from October 2004 through September 2005, roughly quadruple the $352 million of advertising on the two-hour shows 10 years ago. "In the morning, personalities do matter," Mandel says. Another factor: The morning shows tend to garner more advertising than warranted by their ratings. "To a certain degree, advertising is directed at consumers," notes Mandel. "At a certain point, it is directed at an advertiser's management, share holders and other internal stakeholders." In short, the person responsible for getting his company's ads on morning news shows is buying more than necessary "because everyone else in the company is watching and his or her spouse or boyfriend or girl friend is watching."

NBC's "Today" has garnered the heftiest share of the morning news dollars. And to be sure, the GE-owned network has redoubled its efforts to protect its morning news leadership in the wake of GMA's determined push with Sawyer and Gibson. But new speculation last week concerning "Today" star, Katie Couric, is introducing a degree of uncertainty into the morning news wars--and, indeed, the evening news face-offs, too. Published reports last week breathed new life in old speculation that CBS is seeking to lure Couric to the "CBS Evening News," which is searching for an anchor to succeed Dan Rather after his exit last March. If Couric abandoned her "Today" perch, it could spell changes across television news from dawn to dusk. Not only could ABC's GMA likely bolster its run at a Couric-deprived "Today," but the Nov. 3 CBS Evening News possibly would improve its competitive position. That is, if another pretty face makes a pixel of difference in the digital age.

ABC has chosen its successors to Peter Jennings. But the picks underscore just how much nightly network anchors have lost their clout | News
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