A month and a half after ABC's Bob Woodruff was seriously injured while traveling in a military convoy in Iraq, the evening newscast he co-anchored is still mired in uncertainty as network executives try to sort out how to keep it on track in his absence.
Much of the internal debate is focused on who should replace him. "Good Morning America" co-hosts Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson, who took turns subbing for Woodruff temporarily last month, have been discussed as candidates to take over in a more long-term capacity. In recent days, Gibson -- who came close to getting the job last fall -- has been increasingly seen as the news division's choice, but sources familiar with internal discussions said no decision has been made.
Meanwhile, ABC News officials acknowledged Thursday that they have been forced to drastically scale back an ambitious initiative to provide a customized broadcast of "World News Tonight" for the West Coast because they have not yet been able to settle on who should join Woodruff's co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas on the program.
"We are committed to the West Coast edition of `World News Tonight,' but we are having trouble at this point fulfilling it as fully as we would have wished or as fully as we had expected," said Paul Slavin, ABC News' senior vice president for worldwide news-gathering.
The situation has forced the newsroom to contend with an ongoing lack of clarity about the broadcast's future -- a circumstance eerily familiar to the one ABC found itself in last fall after longtime anchor Peter Jennings died of lung cancer.
"The whole thing has just been bad and difficult on the organization," Slavin said. "Some people wonder what kind of cloud we're living under."
It was just three months ago that upbeat ABC officials rolled out their plan for a post-Jennings "World News Tonight" -- an expanded broadcast that would feature a daily afternoon Webcast and two customized feeds for West Coast viewers. Vargas and Woodruff were tapped to anchor the program together, a format ABC News President David Westin said was essential because of the demands of the extra newscasts and the amount of traveling both would be doing.
Woodruff was on one of those trips Jan. 29, traveling north of Baghdad with American and Iraqi troops, when the Iraqi personnel carrier he was riding in was hit by a roadside bomb. He and cameraman Doug Vogt sustained serious head wounds.
Vogt was released from the hospital last month and on Thursday Woodruff -- who is now able to walk and talk again -- checked out of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and moved to a private facility in New York for further treatment.
In an e-mail to ABC employees, Westin said the anchor "continues to show just how strong and determined he is. That said, we should expect months of further recuperation."
ABC officials said Woodruff has strongly expressed a desire to return to work. But in the meantime, the network is struggling with how to handle plans for the second-place broadcast, whose viewership has dropped by 896,000 viewers, about 9 percent, this season, according to Nielsen Media Research. (Top-rated NBC is down 7 percent; CBS is up 2 percent.) After Woodruff was wounded, a promotional campaign featuring the new anchor team had to be scrapped, as well as some international initiatives, including a trip to Africa and more extensive reporting in Iraq, Slavin said.
More broadly, the efforts to remake a new version of the broadcast for Western viewers have been largely stalled, much to the frustration of some West Coast affiliates, who were counting on the effort to drive up local viewership.
Slavin said that while ABC has continued to spend millions on additional staff to work on the later newscasts, the last of which finishes airing at 10 p.m. Eastern, the network has not been able to consistently freshen the broadcast's later feeds in the way executives originally envisioned.
Vargas has been staying to do the West Coast broadcasts about three nights a week, while another "anchor-quality person" has been on hand the other two nights in case of breaking news, Slavin said, but it remains unclear how often the late newscasts have been updated.
Even when Gibson and Sawyer were subbing in February, they played a limited role in the West Coast feeds because of their early schedules.
Despite everything, Slavin said he believes the broadcast remains strong and said ABC remains committed to customizing news for West Coast viewers, an initiative that requires an anchor team.
"We're going to get this thing back up and running and fulfill the promise that we made as soon as we can get two anchors in there," he said.
But just when Vargas' new partner will be named remains unclear. Earlier in the month, the network was rife with speculation the job would go to Sawyer, but recently, Gibson has emerged as the front-runner, with sources cautioning that no decision appears imminent.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times