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Future of ABC morning anchor is question of day

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Times Staff Writer

At ABC News, the talk lately has centered on one question: What’s Diane going to do?

After a year in which the television news industry absorbed Katie Couric’s move to “CBS Evening News” and Meredith Vieira’s jump to NBC’s “Today” show, Diane Sawyer is poised to trigger more upheaval as she mulls whether to continue her eight-year run on “Good Morning America.”

The departure of Sawyer -- arguably the news division’s biggest luminary -- would be a substantial blow to “GMA,” the most profitable program at ABC News and a show on which she has considerable influence.

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Sawyer has not yet given news executives an indication of her plans, according to network sources. The 61-year-old anchor is known for being inscrutable, but those close to her believe she has in fact not yet made up her mind about whether to remain on the morning show. One factor complicating her decision: the lack of other A-list broadcasting jobs currently up for grabs.

The uncertainty about her next move has caused considerable anxiety among ABC officials, who are not eager to see her leave “GMA” on the heels of her longtime co-anchor Charles Gibson, who switched over to the evening newscast last spring.

Executives fret that “GMA” would founder without her, especially as the program is still finding its footing since the arrival of two new on-air hires this season: news anchor Chris Cuomo and weatherman Sam Champion. Anchor Robin Roberts has been in her post since May 2005 but has a lower profile than her well-known co-host.

Sawyer has two more years on her ABC contract, but her obligation to “GMA” is less explicit. She originally joined the show in 1999 with Gibson on a temporary basis to help shore up the second-place program, a status that has not technically changed.

After Gibson moved to “World News,” Sawyer said she planned to stay at “GMA” through at least part of 2007.

“I love these people and I love their passion, and I learn from them daily,” she said in an interview in June. “I am going to stay and do whatever I can to make it strong and stable.”

Sawyer declined to comment this week on her plans, but ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said her commitment to “GMA” has no timetable.

“She is very much enjoying what she’s doing right now,” Schneider added. “She is very engaged, loves the new team and has had an incredible run of great reporting.”

As network executives nervously await Sawyer’s move, they have sought to emphasize her value to the network. One project in the works, though its timing is uncertain: a marketing campaign that would showcase the anchor’s body of work, including her reporting from North Korea last fall, according to sources familiar with the plans.

Many ABC insiders regard the plan for promotional spots, which would not include the rest of the “GMA” team, as an effort to stress the network’s appreciation of the longtime broadcaster.

“It’s SOS -- saving our Sawyer,” said a source familiar with internal discussions, who -- like others knowledgeable about the state of affairs -- declined to be named because of the situation’s sensitivity.

“Everything they are doing is designed to keep her, to make her happy.”

Ground lost to ‘Today’

While Sawyer’s immediate plans remain an enigma, her future on “GMA” is widely viewed as intertwined with the fortunes of the program.

Since Gibson left, the morning show has lost ground to top-rated “Today,” whose lead over “GMA” has grown from an average of 670,000 viewers at this point last season to 825,000 viewers so far this season, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Colleagues said the program’s status frustrates Sawyer, who has also tired of some of the more frivolous segments on the two-hour show. They describe her as someone concerned about her legacy and seeking to round out her career immersed in journalism that has a social impact.

“I think that Diane is searching,” said a veteran staffer close to the anchor. “I think she truly doesn’t know what’s next for her and what’s next for the business. She’s no dummy, and she understands what the numbers are doing. And I can’t image she thinks they’re going to catch them.”

Nevertheless, network sources said Sawyer returned re-energized from her recent trip to South Africa, where she covered the opening of Oprah Winfrey’s new academy for underprivileged girls. Back in New York, she called a slew of meetings to brainstorm story ideas and tackled with new vigor a piece about poverty in Camden, N.J., that she’s doing for the newsmagazine “Primetime.”

If she decided to leave “GMA,” her exit would generate more instability for a news division that weathered the turmoil of Peter Jennings’ death and the subsequent wounding in Iraq of anchor Bob Woodruff, one of his successors.

Even though “World News” is considered ABC’s flagship newscast, “GMA” brings in more than $250 million annually, according to network sources, the bulk of the news division’s revenue. With Sawyer, the show is buttressed by the presence of a news star at a time when the industry has fewer and fewer giants.

“There’s only one Diane Sawyer,” said one top ABC News executive. “She’s the best in the business, and there will never be another like her.”

Some believe she has too much influence on “GMA.” A notorious workaholic, Sawyer is intimately involved in details like story lineup and video selection. The first hour of the show -- the newsiest block -- is now being run by two producers close to the longtime anchor: Chris Vlasto, who worked with Sawyer on “Primetime,” and Anna Robertson, who once served as Sawyer’s researcher.

“She really drives the show,” said an ABC staffer close to the program. “There’s this environment in which she’s the mommy and everyone else is just part of her household. If she were to go, it would send everything into a state of chaos.”

Despite her status, Sawyer was largely on the sidelines during the last several years as each of the three broadcast networks dealt with the challenge of replacing its evening news anchor. It’s a job that has long appealed to the former “60 Minutes” correspondent; according to colleagues, she has often said that she wants to end her career on the “high ground” of the evening news.

But when ABC executives were weighing whom to name as a permanent anchor last year after Woodruff was injured, she held back, aware that Gibson was prepared to retire if he didn’t get the job. Inside the news division, it’s widely assumed that she would like to succeed him once he finishes his run on “World News,” but he’s committed to stay on through at least the 2008 presidential election.

It remains unclear what other positions ABC could now offer Sawyer. Network sources said that after Ted Koppel left “Nightline,” ABC News President David Westin suggested that she helm the late-night news program, but she was not interested.

“Diane is a very, very hard-working journalist,” said Judy Muller, a former ABC correspondent who now teaches journalism at USC. “She really has a reputation for hands-on concern about her work. I cannot imagine her just easing into something. I think she wants something that is really high profile.”

But with Brian Williams in place at the “NBC Nightly News,” Vieira on “Today” and Couric at CBS, Sawyer is effectively boxed out of the other top broadcast jobs in the industry, even if she were able to get out of her ABC contract early.

For now, the only clue that Sawyer has offered is her interest in doing more significant journalism in prime time, such as her hourlong documentary on North Korea, which aired in December.

“If I can’t do that kind of thing, I’m vitamin-deficient,” she told New York magazine last summer. “I can’t do this work if I can’t also get some big meaty stuff to do.”

matea.gold@latimes.com


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