Diane Sawyer's September departure from her nightly anchor desk at ABC News, announced on Wednesday, is clearly a major event that will change –- or rather, lay bare –- the face of TV news. How to explain the multi-rippled impact of Sawyer's stepping aside? Use a phrase that was once applied to her old boss, Richard Nixon: "Follow the money."
In the short term, of course, ABC may save some money by having young pup David Muir (who's 40 and has decades less seniority than 68-year-old Sawyer) take her nightly seat. Meanwhile, naming morning mainstay George Stephanopoulos as "Chief Anchor" for breaking news seems a largely cosmetic and cheap way to keep the daytime news star happy without actually promoting him or increasing his duties much. And keeping the morning crew happy is, in a way, what this move is really all about.
After all, Muir's version of the nightly newscast is supposedly going to be more like "Good Morning America," perhaps with more live interviews and less gravitas. And having "GMA"'s Stephanopoulos on board in whatever capacity will also reinforce continuity with "GMA." For it's "GMA," not the evening "World News," that is now ABC's flagship news program and its cash cow.
For the first time in 16 years, "GMA" is handily beating NBC's "Today" among morning viewers. Those hours of programming every morning mean big ad dollars, in contrast with the aging, shrinking audience for the nightly newscasts. The nightly network news is just not the glamour job it was when every TV journalist aspired to be Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings. In the zillion-channel cable universe, the network's nightly newscasts are largely seen as fading anachronisms, a last bastion of boring high-mindedness from an age when a network's TV news division was still considered a public service and not a revenue generator like everything else the network aired.
In recent years, old-school pundits decried the ascent of Sawyer and Katie Couric from the morning news shows to their network's nightly anchor chairs as moves that would somehow soften (read: feminize) the newscasts and make them less serious. The truth is, however, that the nightly newscasts were always personality-driven, defined as much by the personal style of a Cronkite or Brokaw as by the actual editorial content. That Sawyer's duties will be split between Muir and Stephanopoulos shows not only that she leaves big shoes to fill, but also that the anchor job is no longer the glittering prize it once was. The fact that Sawyer can so casually walk away from the desk after less than five years there shows that as well.
Of course, now that Sawyer is leaving, nightly network news is once again the preserve of middle-aged white guys. Whatever experiment Couric and Sawyer were launching was short-lived, and now it's back to the way things were for decades before they came along. (Sure, there's still Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff running the nightly news hour on PBS, but does PBS count?) Especially after Barbara Walters' departure from "The View" last month, ABC News is going from having TV journalism's two most celebrated women in prominent daily posts to looking like every other white-guy network. (Sawyer and Walters, who is 84, have both said they'll continue to do prime-time interview specials, but it's hard not to see their respective resignations from their day jobs as anything but easing gently into retirement.) It's hard to see how having Muir or Stephanopoulos at the desk will help ABC differentiate its newscast from those of Scott Pelley at CBS or Brian Williams at NBC.
The paradox is that ABC seems to want to make its nightly news more closely resemble golden goose "GMA," and yet a big part of that morning show's success is its appeal to women, who are the primary audience for daytime TV and (to hear the sponsors tell it) for TV in general. How is losing its most recognizable women going to help ABC News recapture the evening like it did the morning?