The next president of ABC News will face big challenges

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One of the top priorities for the next president of ABC News won’t be figuring out who should eventually succeed Diane Sawyer as anchor of the network’s ‘World News Tonight.’ It will be deciding whether there will be an audience worth pursuing for ‘World News Tonight’ when Sawyer walks away.

With ratings and revenues declining and their core audience growing old, the news divisions of the broadcast networks -- like the newspaper and radio industries -- are struggling to reinvent themselves for the digital age. The playing field between traditional media and new media has been leveled, but the aftershocks are still being felt.


‘Clearly the journalism business is in a state of over capacity,’ said Andrew Tyndall, an industry consultant. ‘There are a lot of legacy brands that are going to have to shrink ... this is not just the tribulations of ABC News or broadcast television, this is journalism and the transformation the Internet has wrought.’

That transformation has been particularly painful at ABC News. David Westin, who said Monday he was stepping down as president of ABC News at the end of the year after 13 years in the job, spent much of his tenure cutting budgets. In April, ABC News wrapped up a brutal round of cuts that saw about 400 people either take buyouts or get laid off. The network’s news division currently has about 1,000 freelance and full-time staff, which is on par with its rivals NBC and CBS.

At that time, Westin said in a memo to his staff that ‘now it is time to look to the future.’ What he didn’t say, but apparently was already thinking, was that the future of ABC News would not include him. In his Monday e-mail, Westin indicated he had approached his bosses -- Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger and Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney/ABC Television Group -- last month to say it was time for him to go.

Though Westin’s exit was positioned as voluntary, he had grown weary of the pressure to constantly find new ways to cut costs and his relationships with Sweeney and Iger had grown tenser, people within ABC News said. Sweeney declined a request for an interview via an ABC spokesman, and a Walt Disney Co. spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment. Westin did not comment beyond his e-mail.

Although the spotlight is currently on ABC, all the broadcast networks are in the same boat. Ten years ago, the three evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC averaged 27.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Today the three newscasts are averaging 21.8 million viewers, a 21% decline. From a competitive standpoint, ABC has been holding its own against NBC News, which is in first place both in the morning with its ‘Today’ program and in the evening with its ‘Nightly News With Brian Williams.’ CBS is mired in third place both in the morning with ‘The Early Show’ and in the evening with its Katie Couric-anchored newscast. NBC News and ABC News are both profitable, people close to those networks say. Sean McManus, the president of CBS News, recently told the industry magazine Broadcasting & Cable that he was not certain if his news unit would be profitable in 2010.

Not only is the network news audience shrinking, it is also aging. The problem with that is it means that future generations are not growing up with the viewing habits of their parents and grandparents. The networks must groom a new audience if they are to survive. This is particularly true for the three evening newscasts, which all start at 6:30 p.m., a time when many Americans are either still working or commuting home.

‘My students do not watch the evening news,’ said Christopher Harper, a former foreign correspondent and investigative producer for ABC News who now teaches journalism at Temple University. ‘The evening news has become the province of old guys like me.’ The big challenge for Westin’s successor, added Frank Sesno, a former senior executive at CNN who is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, will not only be figuring out how to navigate all the new platforms people can receive content on, but also how best to define success.

‘Is it a great show, high ratings or great journalism? They could be three totally different things,’ he said.

The networks may also have to rethink their priorities. All three networks have closed bureaus around the world and slashed production budgets, but they still spend heavily on their marquee on-air talent even though there is little evidence that having a high-priced anchor translates into bigger ratings.

‘What the networks have to do is spend more on reporters and producers and less on anchors,’ said Harper.

In the past, ABC has flirted with forming a joint venture with a cable partner. Several years ago, the network had serious talks with CNN that ultimately collapsed over leadership issues. More recently, ABC has had discussions with Bloomberg LP, the business news conglomerate. As of now though, the network is not talking with any potential partners, executives there said.

Within ABC News, there is tremendous unease about what lies ahead. Westin’s departure came as something of a surprise to many staffers there who thought he had successfully guided the network through the cuts his bosses at Disney wanted and would be sticking around.
There is no heir apparent inside ABC News for Westin’s job. Just two months ago, Dave Davis left his position as executive vice president of ABC News to become the general manager of WABC-TV New York. In an internal e-mail Monday, Sweeney said she would be announcing a new leader for ABC News ‘in the near future.’

Given Disney’s desire to find new platforms for its content -- last week it announced an agreement with Apple to allow many of its TV shows to be rented on iTunes, it seems likely that Iger and Sweeney will look for someone with new media savvy as well as journalistic credibility.

There have been several high-profile shakeups at Disney over the last year and their replacements have not been traditional choices. When Dick Cook, the longtime chief of Disney’s movie studio left, he was replaced by Rich Ross, the chief of Disney Channel who had no movie experience. Last month, Steve McPherson, the head of ABC’s entertainment operations, was succeeded by Paul Lee, a cable executive with no broadcast experience. Just last week, Disney tapped the head of its radio unit, Michael Riley, to replace Lee as head of ABC Family, a cable network.

‘The next person who comes into this job should have a vivid imagination and a very thick flak jacket,’ cracked Sesno.

-- Joe Flint